A/N: Wow, talk about your insane gaps. The usual suspects were at it again... overworked and under-inspired. Let's see what the weeks ahead have to bring...

Everyone can thank Lakewood for his expeditious response, which enabled the delay to be minimized to my own incompetence. --

On with the show!

17: The Conception and The Creation
Some distance west of the Helmaj base (Grid Square 45/89)

17: The Conception and The Creation

The roaring of the Chelyabinsk diesels had turned the traversing ground into one huge seismic event. Across a ten-kilometer front, almost two hundred tanks and innumerable nimble, heavily-armed scout cars and BMD armored fighting vehicles churned the flat, rocky Afghan steppe with their advance. The sun sinking behind them, the scout cars dashed ahead as the tanks and BMDs stopped, their engines running at high idle.

"Scouting operations have begun, comrade zampolit," a recon battalion captain reported, dashing up to the open rear door of a BMD armored fighting vehicle, heavily adorned with radio antennae. "Current conditions show the wind at two-five-eight at fifteen kilometers. Sunset at 1854 hours, total darkness at 1930."

"Excellent." Colonel Rozhkov accepted the proffered field glasses from the scout captain. He could see the tips of cliff faces just at the edge of the horizon. Helmaj country, he thought. "Comrade General?"

Lieutenant-General Fyodor Sorokin was young for the rank he held. At only forty-four, it was a miracle he was even admitted to the Frunze Military Academy's officer program, let alone graduated fifth in his class. He frowned over a low-scale map of the region, annotated with photos from reconnaissance aircraft. "We can extend our front by another four kilometers by supplementing from our rear-guard troops, comrade zampolit," the divisional commander said between pulls on a cheap Polish cigarette. "While I'm always dubious about leaving our artillery exposed, if we have the 45th Motor-Rifle mounted in their vehicles, we can reconfigure any defensive actions that come to pass."

"So let me ask you this, comrade General, why is it that your air defense officer is at the front line right now if our foes possess no aircraft?"

"ZSU-23s are useful as fire-support vehicles, comrade zampolit," Sorokin rattled off without missing a beat. "Since the Helmaj have no armor or aircraft, we can use the Shilkas to pin down positions and reach up into dug-in pockets."

Rozhkov poured tea for himself and Sorokin. Their relationship was rare, a divisional commander who didn't hate his zampolit and a zampolit who deferred tactical authority to a field officer. There wasn't enough of a KGB presence in Afghanistan for Rozhkov to manage, and most of the troops in the Soviet invasion force were battle-tested enough to earn the zampolit's respect. "I am glad to have you in command for this, Fisha." Rozhkov proffered the general a mug of the strong caravan tea. "It didn't take much to put two and two together when we got that distress signal. I cannot believe that even Andrei Sergeivich would signal after being captured by the Helmaj."

Sorokin sipped at his tea, signing off on a message form. "I want to know where those bandits got a cargo aircraft," he grumbled. "One hour until we start moving. Zorin!" he shouted out the door of the BMD. "Signal 5th Guards to begin their advance behind the scouts. Our time-on-target is 1930 hours!"

A few miles ahead of the Soviet advance, thousands of Helmaj had taken to digging at the mouth of their valley. Foxholes were spaded into the hardened alkali soil of the mountainous region, tank traps were formed with the excess dirt; all with frightening efficiency considering the captured Soviet entrenching shovels and horse-drawn carts.

"They'll start an artillery bombardment before they move in their armor," Sonoma pointed out over his own map of the area. "Likely points will be here, at the entrance to the valley, and as far in the rear area as they can to interdict our logistics coming forward. Our supply lines are all in the caves, so that's no concern, but transporting them will be a problem. Majid, send all horsemen not occupied for the battle to transport detail and get them down with the shell timing. The Soviets will ripple-fire with one shell every 2.7 seconds on a lateral west-east march. They can time between the waves. Hold back the briefcase delivery for now. Recoilless rifle anti-tank crews are going in the cliff faces here, in the north face, and two in the south. Mobile anti-tank crews go two to a horse, and they carry five extra rounds per horse. How are we on the trench?"

Majid trained his binoculars west, squinting from the low sun. "Looks like they're only four feet down and still digging. We have berms being built with the extra dirt, and I doubt that a T-72 can go through that sand without bogging down."

"We've done all we can for planning. Pound into them to aim for the treads. I'm going back to help Kiriko fix things up and ready the Scimitar. Prepare to break camp as soon as we gain the initiative." Sonoma clapped Majid on the shoulder as he mounted his horse, galloping back to the rear area.

Once we stop this attack, we'll relocate north. The Chinese border is only two days' ride. Damn… we'll have to deploy the suitcases out via India. Less security than coming out of Kabul, but we'll have to redistribute the film. Damn! I shouldn't have let those Spetsnaz live…

"Kiriko!" he yelled into the widest cave-mouth. "We're going to be seeing visitors in just a little over an hour!"

He was answered with an angry shout, the crashing of a metal tool on a bigger object, and the spinning-up of a diesel generator.

"We lost the secondary APUs from a voltage mismatch!" Kiriko yelled, emerging from the cave, her face smudged with grease. "I had to reconfigure the whole damn thing and recharge the new ones. It'll be ready in fifteen, twenty minutes, tops."

Sonoma raised an eyebrow. "You think it'll be good for combat?"

Kiriko smiled. "I just told you that it'd be ready in fifteen or twenty minutes."

He nodded. "Get it ready."

To hell with defending against the Soviets!

The Sinai

Recovery operations had begun in earnest. Two HH-53 Sea Stallions, modified for bulk cargo, had swooped in from the MV Valley Mistress, a covert operations vessel,cruising off the southern Israeli coast in the Red Sea. The remaining Arm Slaves had loaded on to a chopper each, but not before the Stallions had delivered two specialized teams.

The MITHRIL demolitions experts had just set time-delay fuses on two heavy thermite satchel charges when Israeli artillery began to fall around them.

We can't leave yet, McAllen thought as he craned his neck towards one of the small porthole windows, blocked by the bulk of the Patton AS. There's a war going on down there!

He didn't know that the same thoughts were being echoed by a higher-ranking officer in a C-5 Galaxy orbiting a few hundred miles away, their anger flaring up as huge explosions of superheated thermite napalm obliterated the remains of the Soviet and MITHRIL Arm Slaves.

"Are you sure we have no further theater assets to commit?" General Sachar demanded over a secure radio link. "We're looking at the fifth Persian Gulf war breaking out here! Don't even tell me that the Syrians are going to sit this one out! Five Egyptian divisions are still in the field, and-"

"Andy, we have run out of options," Major-General Shabra's voice echoed over the headset. "IDF sent in their people as soon as I gave them the timetable of our operations. If we push them any further, we risk the Mossad crashing down on all of MITHCENT's field ops, let alone SIGNET RING. I have orders from the Commander himself: we are pulling out of the Sinai Peninsula."

"They're only telling us this now!" Sachar pounded a fist on the metal console of the command aircraft as his teleprinter started chattering out a coded message. "Dammit! What about the missing Soviet Arm Slave? And those Scimitars, what in the living bloody hell were Soviet AS units doing in the field? They even had Soviet markings on them! Bastards certainly aren't exporting them!"

"I'm sorry, Andy. We have our orders."

"Yeah," Sachar grumbled, watching a communications technician begin decoding the message. "Orders." He pressed the DISCONNECT button, throwing off the flight helmet in anger. "Don't tell me: we're pulling out."

"Affirmative, sir," the tech replied. "We're to land Diego Garcia and hold there for the next phase of SIGNET RING."

"Next phase?"

"Yes, sir… it appears that we're returning to Merida."

The Helmaj base

"We ride for the Soviets!" Sonoma yelled out, forgetting the Helmaj language for a moment. He kicked his heels into the sides of his horse rapidly, urging the animal forward rapidly through the encampment. #"Abandon all defensive operations and break camp! Arm yourselves and leave everything else behind! We ride to attack the Soviets! Send any remaining women and children to the rear!"#

Majid almost got himself run over as he dashed and grabbed onto the saddle of Sonoma's horse, nimbly leaping onto its back. "Are you mad, sir?" Majid yelled. "We don't have nearly enough of a plan ready to break that division!"

"Look behind you, Majid!" Sonoma yelled over the horse's galloping hooves. Behind him, a scramble of humanity poured into the Helmaj valley as the ragtag soldiers rapidly pulled weapons and horses from protective caves. "Do you see any Frogfoots or Hinds circling us? Do you see artillery and rockets falling yet? If we fight on their terms, we will be wiped out and forced to retreat. But if we strike while they prepare, we can execute the greatest guerilla tactic ever practiced and keep pushing south!"

Sonoma's adjutant was silent. "So Helmajin Helmaj intends to undertake the destruction of this entire reinforced armored division?"

Sonoma yelled an alert a few more times before responding. "I am saying, Majid, that it is high time I practiced what I've preached. I need our men to follow me for this one attack alone."

He didn't even need to hear Majid's acknowledgement. The older man leapt off the horse, skidded on his feet, and rushed over to his own steed to relay the orders.

Kalinin had already helped his injured sergeant to his feet, having fashioned a meager splint. In the sudden rush and chaos, the Soviets knew a chance when they saw one.

"Going somewhere?"

Sonoma reared his horse to a stop in front of the Soviets' tent. He didn't even need to open the flap to know what they would be thinking.

"Your people are here, and we're going to destroy them," Sonoma pronounced, almost solemnly. "If you're not here when I get back, you'll be just another bunch of Soviet soldiers to me and my people."

"If we are still here?" Kalinin replied.

"Then you'll all be one of us. Soldiers for life. Helmaj. The Soviet Union may have trained and supported you, but 'to each according to his need, from each according to his ability' won't work unless everyone wants in on it. You can go back to the Soviet Union… or you can have true communism in your lifetime."

Sonoma ran off in a gallop of hooves. He didn't see the tall black man in nondescript fatigues peek out at him from behind a rock.

#"Helmajin Helmaj leads us to war!"#

#"We go to destroy the Soviets!"#

"Helmajin tarook!"

Konduz base

The four-plane formation of stocky, stout Su-25 Frogfoot attack fighters screeched low over the ground base, heading east. They had only twenty minutes' flight time to reach their patrol station.

The Helmaj base

The guard had reacted like anyone would: he heard a sudden, sharp noise coming from behind him and to the right. Turning to look, he only saw the captured MITHRIL agent. Turning back, he saw a blur of motion almost a half-second too late.

"Sure took you long enough," Kenji barked at Mark as the tall agent took the fallen guard's gun. "Nice to know you still remember what I taught you about pressure points."

"Ain't no time to chat, my man. Shit's going down out there. There's a Soviet division that thinks it's gonna attack the Helmaj. It's the other way around right now." Mark patted down the guard and found a set of keys in his pocket.

"So let me guess… we're going to fight our way out of this?"

"Horseshit. There's clear terrain to the east. We're getting' outta here and waiting on this. They left behind all kinds of useful stuff. Food, water, tents, horses… they're breaking camp like they ain't coming back!"

"Doesn't surprise me, but I'm not leaving."

"Kenji, you dumb son of a bitch." Mark shook his head, holding up the keys he took from the guard. "You gonna go after NAPA VALLEY, huh? You gonna take him down like nobody else could? You gonna succeed where at least five MITHRIL search squads couldn't? Guess I gotta leave you locked up here for your own safety."

"Goddammit, Mark!" Kenji shouted suddenly. "What the hell else do I have to do with my life? How much more can I just keep going on being a soldier? I joined MITHRIL to rid the world of NAPA VALLEY and scum like him! If you're not going to help me, then fine, go ahead and abandon me here! Leave me to my fate in this cave! You can go off and watch, then steal a horse or something and get through a country full of Soviets, if only to report back on what happened here! Go ahead and ignore the Kabul operation, ignore Cambodia, ignore that beer I owe you! Ignore the beer that ignited all this!"

Mark stared his friend down. "You're tellin' me that when we ain't got orders, backup, or even a gun for each of us, you wanna go out there and kick some ass. Damn fool Japanese, I ain't never gonna understand you samurai types."

Mark knelt down to unlock the chains that bound Kenji to the chair in the cave. The jangling had drowned out the kachik of a pistol being cocked behind them. They didn't hear the footsteps until it was too late, when a tall female figure had lifted a gun to Mark's head.

"I'm sorry, boys, but the line ends here," Gefen ben Lebedov said apologetically.

"So there she is," Mark joked. "Not often you get to say hi to a traitor."

"To MITHRIL, yes, I would be branded a traitor, if they were to find me again," Gef replied, pressing the gun upwards against Mark's skull. He dropped the AK that he had taken from the guard, raising his hands. "But if I am a traitor to a failing agency, I am a loyal soldier for peace."

"Gef, listen to me," Kenji explained calmly. "NAPA VALLEY is a murderer. He's killed innocent civlians in cold blood simply because of MITHRIL's orders and intentions. He-"

"He is far ahead of whatever MITHRIL intends to do with this world," Gef cut him off as she patted Mark down for weapons. "I've seen enough war and it's time to end it."

"Look outside this cave, Gef. People are getting ready to stir some serious shit up! They're gonna get killed going after a Soviet armored division!"

Grid Square 45/89

"We have forward scouts dug in reporting movement in the valley."

The Soviet commanders observed their operations staffers reposition unit markers on the area map that was unfolded in front of them. A wall of red double-X markers, each indicating a Soviet armored regiment, backed with four red X-V markers to represent artillery, stared down four green slashed-circle markers. Over 8,000 troops with hundreds of tanks, artillery rockets and cannons, and air support were staring down about 1,000 guerilla soldiers.

"Identify the movement," General Sorokin ordered.

"The scouts report that there's movement consistent with building defenses. Earthworks are going up, and beyond that, we have no ability to see in."

"Digging in, eh? Very well. Let's move things up a little bit. Comrade zampolit?"

"As much as I dislike the idea of firing on an area where our own people may be hiding, I have all faith in comrade Kalinin to come through this unscathed. Go ahead, comrade General."

The Helmaj base

The high-explosive rockets landed almost silently, flying at a subsonic velocity and thus not creating the ripping sound of faster artillery projectiles. Most were off-target, impacting on the walls of the valley's cliff faces, but their landing threw the Helmaj rear area into chaos. The exploding warheads blew fragments, stones, and boulders free, which then rained and tumbled across great swaths. Groups of Helmaj were cut down, most by shrapnel cuts and wounds, but several died instantly under out-of-control boulder falls and rockslides.

#"The Soviets have begun their attack!"# a Helmaj, his once-handsome Eurasian face marred by several scars, reported to Majid as he dashed up from the rear. #"We're under rocket and artillery fire from their rear!"#

#"Get everyone who hasn't evacuated into the caverns to the north. Detail a troop to escort them to safety, and then get them back over the Chinese border. We'll send for them when this clears out. Take only what you have and acquire as you move. Go!"# Majid turned his horse and spurred him on just as three 155mm artillery rounds exploded behind his position.

The horse fell from the concussion and desperately tried to bring itself back to its feet. Majid picked himself up from the hard ground, swore as he found blood dripping from a cut on his forehead, and drew up an AK-47 from a fallen Helmaj a few feet behind him. "I am sorry," he said to the horse, whinnying from an invisible wound. With that, he drew the rifle to bear and fired a round through the animal's head, putting it out of its painful misery.

"I saw the explosions," Sonoma called out to Majid from a few feet away on his own horse. "Take mine and go to the front. Begin the attack with what we have in place. I'm going to help Kiriko."

"You should take this," Majid reached into his garments and withdrew a larger version of a Helmaj dagger. "If the time comes, wield it in battle and we will rally to you."

"This is the first time fighting with my own men," Sonoma reflected between artillery blasts. "I never thought it'd be in such a place."

With that, NAPA VALLEY galloped to the large cavern where his wife was working.

The mouth of the valley

#"Helmaj! Advance!"#

The battle call was punctuated with the blowing of a ram's horn, the harsh tone echoing throughout the valley. The horn-blower raced through the valley on the back of a stolen Soviet UAZ jeep, its driver skillfully dodging craters and exploding Soviet artillery rounds. Through every explosion, the UAZ made a loop around the valley, doing nothing but blowing the spiral battle horn, calling the Helmaj to race out the valley as fast as they could.

The Helmaj army poured out of the mouth of the valley, line abreast on horseback, dashing across the rocky alkali westward towards the Soviet forces.

Grid Square 45/89

"The artillery has flushed the Helmaj out! Forward scouts are reporting that Helmaj horsemen are on the move!"

"Looks like they're not giving in so easily. Send the 114th Infantry forward to this point," Sorokin gestured to a forward position on the map. "Then flank them with 208th Tanks and 79th Motorized. We'll create a funnel and have artillery pound their escape route to the rear. Air support will come in from our Frontal Aviation comrades in –" Sorokin checked his watch – "seven minutes. Continue the bombardment and fire for effect as they advance."

The Helmaj charge took the forward scouts by surprise, but only tactically. The BRDM scout cars and UAZ-mounted infantry were quickly able to train their guns on the horde of Helmaj.

A BRDM opened fire first. Its turret-mounted .50-caliber machine gun let loose a barrage of tracer rounds, their phosphorous glow resplendent in the Afghan twilight. The bright tracers streaked out and cut through the Helmaj ranks as they raced closer and closer, towards the bright setting sun and the Soviet ranks.

"11th Scouts is under direct attack. The advance is slowing, but they are still coming strong. Force size and count is negative at this time."

"What about our flanks?" Sorokin looked up from a radio.

"Moving into position, comrade General!"

The pocket of Soviet scouts held their ground, firing controlled bursts into the Helmaj riders, who jinked left and right unpredictably, bringing their own weapons to bear. RPGs and grenades crashed into the Soviet positions from soldiers who appeared and disappeared, weaving amongst dust clouds, flying bullets, and other riders. One Soviet foxhole, then another, was silenced as the Helmaj started to encircle the position as artillery fell behind them.

#"There! That one!"# a call went out as a Soviet BRDM started to back up, its diesel engine straining under power. Two Helmaj riders leapt off of their horses and fired shots inside the open air vents of the scout car, stopping it in its tracks. They threw the outer hatch open and tossed out the two dead Soviet soldiers inside it, commandeering the vehicle. The turreted machine gun immediately rotated around to the rest of the Soviet ranks, firing on the frantic defenders.

"Comrade General, we have lost contact with 11th Scouts. Their last report was that vehicle seventeen was commencing a strategic withdrawal."

"Raise them on the backup. Where are the 18th Airborne?"

"En route, sir; ETA ten minutes."

"Good. Let's see how our comrades in the helicopters handle these savages."

The Helmaj base

It was a chastened Richard Sonoma that remained in the valley,jogging past the rows of fallen rocks and bodies. I should be out there, he thought. I came in and assumed leadership years ago, then they go off to fight just because I order. How loyal these Helmaj are!

The whine of a diesel generator throttled down in the distance, replaced by the low, continuous thrum of a gas turbine engine spinning up. The sound brought a smile to Sonoma's face.

"Ready to go?" he asked into a portable radio unclipped from his belt.

With a thunderous crash, an armored fist punched its way through the cave wall behind him. A mighty heave of reinforced metal arms, bundled with hydraulic piping and circuitry akin to the muscles of a body builder, threw the Rk-81 "Scimitar" Arm Slave out of the cave in which it had resided. Unlike the bare-skinned ones that had ravaged MITHRIL in the Sinai not a few hours ago, this Scimitar had been repainted a dark, metallic blue that blended in with the darkening night sky. Its optical sensors glowed a subdued red, and several mounted machine guns and rocket launchers adorned its reinforced body.

"I'm ready!" Kiriko's voice crackled over the radio. The Arm Slave gave as best a thumbs-up as it could with its three-fingered hand. "Let's take the fight to the Soviets!"