Bucharest, Socialist Republic of Romania
Nick looked out the porthole-like helicopter window. Below him the valley of Baia Mare gave way to the Gutai Mountains, peaks rising mile-high in the darkness around them.
He returned his attention to the bus-style passenger cabin of the aircraft and saw Candito checking his watch.
They didn’t have much time left before sun-up, and Candito wasn’t happy about the fact. It really was best they finish the job under cover of darkness.
Still, they were doing well to be there at all.
It was only a few hours earlier that Candito woke Nick up with a knock on his door.
Candito was wearing his sunglasses then, same as now.
“The Soviets have lost a prototype of a new aircraft they’ve been working on, up in Maramures County,” Candito said, speaking English with a pronounced Hispanic accent that reminded Nick of some of the guys who’d worked with him back in Central America. “Probably never intended for it to end up there, couldn’t help its crashing on this side of the border.”
“And this involves me because . . .”
“You’ve got an ‘in’ with the government here,” he said. “We want them to help us take it.”
For the last three years Nick had been living in Bucharest, playing the part of an American businessman exporting Romanian agricultural products to the West, which let him get close to officials in the regime.
The idea was to keep tabs on how things were going inside the dictatorship, and to provide an unofficial line of communication between Bucharest and D.C., with an eye to giving the Soviets the maximum of trouble they could get from this direction.
But getting the Romanians to help them steal a Soviet prototype crashed on their territory seemed like a bit much, and after getting dressed and riding off with Candito Nick told him so.
We’re prepared to be generous, Candito said.
Nick phoned up the Minister of Defense, who was up that night, and then went downstairs with Candito to meet his little entourage in the car – the nerdish Elliott; Stockwell, who looked like an uptight G-Man out of Central Casting; and Ermey, who reminded Nick of his high school shop teacher.
Stockwell, who was behind the wheel, drove them through the dark streets to the Minister’s house.
Candito asked Nick if he knew Romanian.
Good, because none of us do.
Great, Nick thought. He’d have to do the talking.
But what was he supposed to say?
Candito talked about debt forgiveness, oil sales on favorable terms, even technology transfers.
It sounded to Nick like a bit much just for a chance to look at a broken piece of junk (the thing hadn’t flown right, after all), but he nodded and went along with it. And so they went, Nick pleading their case with the Minister over a cup of black Turkish coffee.
The Minister nodded, and left the room, to make some phone calls he said. When he came back into the room he told them that a car would be taking them to Otopeni International Airport. There they boarded a Romanian Air Force Ilyushin turboprop transport that was older than everyone in the group except Ermey and flew north to Baia Mare, the seat of the county containing the crash site. At the airport outside the city they met up with Colonel Agafitei of the Romanian Land Forces, who had a pair of Mil mi-8 helicopters and a platoon of soldiers under his command.
Nick, Felix and his staff got into the colonel’s helicopter, while the other carried most of the troops accompanying them. They’d take possession of the site and move out the cargo if they could, or if they couldn’t, start making the arrangements for getting it away and out of the country.
“We should be coming up on the site now,” Agafitei told them just after the crack of dawn.
Nick spotted the gash the crash made in the greenery covering the base of the mountain, picked out the silvery-skinned, ovoid shape that damaged the foliage on its way down. What he took to be its front end looked like it was partially buried in the ground, perhaps after coming down on its nose.
They continued closing with it, enabling Nick to make out more of the details – or more properly, the absence of details. He couldn’t see any windows in its body, or any other features, and even after borrowing Agafitei’s binoculars he still couldn’t. Of course, it might have been the early morning light, or the angle at which he was seeing the crashed aircraft. Maybe it had just landed upside down.
Still, it really didn’t look much like any plane he’d ever seen, Soviet or otherwise. More like drawings of UFOs. It occurred to Nick that maybe the Soviets were working on something big, and that was why Candito and his party had been authorized to offer the Romanians so much for their cooperation. But he was no aerospace expert, and other details arrested his attention: several shapes on the ground, people who’d gathered around it. Hikers who’d just stumbled onto the scene? No, that was too much to hope for, the way they were moving.
“They are not ours,” Agafitei said.
And not regular soldiers. Nick thought of special forces types.
Spetsnaz, infiltrated into the country from over the border? It certainly seemed possible.
“Those aren’t ours either,” Agafitei added, pointing to the helicopters coming in from the east – Soviet airspace.
Nick started counting and stopped at a dozen. This was a battalion, maybe more, making a very large, very deliberate incursion.
“Reinforcements?” Candito asked, clearly grasping at straws.
The colonel hesitated. “They won’t arrive in time. Not in the needed numbers.”
Nick wasn’t sure about their failing to arrive in time, but he knew there was no doubting him about the numbers. If the Romanian Air Force’s MiGs challenged those helicopters, they’d have their heads handed to them in the short, inglorious war certain to follow when the Soviet Air Force came for payback. And there was nothing they could do about it.
Candito’s frustration was evident on his face, but he didn’t argue.
Nick started identifying particular types as the helicopters closed with them. Most of them were Mi-8 transports like the one they were flying in, likely ferrying in troops. Some of the aircraft looked like those transports but bristled with weaponry. He took them for Mi-24 attack helicopters – the kind the Soviet army was using in Afghanistan.
There were also some positively giant helicopters bringing up the rear. He recognized them from television footage he’d seen of the clean-up operations at Chernobyl the previous year as Mi-26s.
Nick knew they were the biggest helicopter ever put into production, a behemoth massing four times as much as the aircraft they were flying in, and capable of hauling twenty tons of cargo in a single flight. Capable of carrying away the helicopter he was flying in easily.
If any helicopter could remove the wreck, it was that one.
“Should we bug out?” Nick asked.
“No,” Candito said, and they stayed, hovering near the crash site.
The thought that the Soviet helicopters would take a shot at them crossed Nick’s mind, but the Soviets didn’t so much as try to shoo them away. (If they’d even radioed them to warn them off, no one told Agafitei or Candito about it.) Maybe their orders were to take no aggressive action, or even to make no contact, unless they were threatened, and the Romanians weren’t up for anything that futile.
The Soviets didn’t care what the passengers of these helicopters saw, just that they didn’t interfere.
Maybe they didn’t know there were American operatives on this helicopter, what the Romanian government had agreed to.
Maybe they did know, and the Romanians would suffer retaliation for it later on.
Frustrated as Candito clearly was, surprise wasn’t one of the emotions Nick was registering. “You expected something like this,” he said.
“I knew we were in a race,” Candito allowed. “I didn’t know we were so far behind.”
Or maybe he’d just hoped they weren’t, Nick thought.
Several of the Soviet helicopters landed, disgorging troops, and the squad fast became a company. Overhead a pair of Mi-24s hovered, their wing stubs heavy with rocket pods and missiles.
One of the big Mi-26s descended toward the crash site, other helicopters moving out of the way so that it could move into a hovering position over the silver ovoid. Capacious as the big helicopters were, he didn’t think they were big enough to hold the craft he saw inside its cabin, and so they weren’t even going to try. Instead the soldiers on the ground slung the craft underneath the giant helicopter. They moved clear of the scene and the Mi-26 lifted it clear of the ground, then high into the air. Other aircraft landed, the soldiers boarding them and flying up into the air with them, their birds following the big Mi-26 east in the early morning light.
“Well, what now?” Nick asked.
“We go in and see what’s left,” Candito said, sounding like he had a mouth full of gravel.
The Soviets didn’t leave them a thing as far as Nick could tell. But he didn’t notice them picking up broken bits, just pulling away the body of that craft from the hole.
It seemed odd that they wouldn’t bother to be more thorough. After all, Nick’s team was operating under a real time pressure because they were far from home, and from help; but this was the Soviets’ backyard. They could do what they liked without rushing.
But then maybe there was nothing to pick up, which seemed awfully strange to Nick. How was it possible that a plane could come down like that and stay completely in one piece?
Nick thought again of the odd look of the aircraft. Now that he thought about it, it seemed very odd that the Soviets would have been flying a prototype out here, very far from any of their aircraft design centers and test ranges. And Candito’s behavior increasingly struck him as very odd.
Nick looked at the others who’d flown in with Candito, saw Elliott holding a small handheld device. He’d called Ermey over, who was bending down to take a soil sample.
He walked up to them and took a better look at the device in Elliott’s hand. It appeared to be a Geiger counter, a device for measuring radiation. He figured that was why Ermey was taking his samples.
That wasn’t a standard part of investigating a crash site, was it? Nick wondered what might have been radioactive on the plane. Nuclear weapons? Surely the Soviets wouldn’t load live warheads into a prototype? He’d heard about attempts to build a nuclear-powered plane a long time ago, but he didn’t have any idea if one of those could actually work, or if anyone was trying to build one now.
He looked back in Candito’s direction, saw him saying something to the colonel that Nick didn’t quite hear, after which he ordered everyone back to the aircraft.
Candito walked over to him. “We’re going back,” he said.
“Empty-handed,” Nick said. “That wasn’t some Soviet prototype, was it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Our friends are making nice now, but I’ll still be here when you leave. At the very least I’ll need a better cover story than the one you’ve given me. Especially after the crazy promises you made me give them about what we’d do for the craft.”
Candito took off his sunglasses, looked him straight in the eye.
“You want me to confirm some suspicion of yours, is that it?” he asked. “Why don’t you tell me what it is you think I should have told you?”
“The Russians didn’t build that thing they just flew off with. And I’m guessing, neither did we.” Somehow he didn’t think this expedition was about keeping a crashed American prototype away from Soviet intelligence, either.
The look Candito gave him was all the confirmation Nick needed.
“Are we done here?” Candito asked.
“Yeah, we’re done,” Nick said.
“Good.” That was the last word Candito said as they got back in the helicopter and flew back to Baia Mare, then got into the Ilyushin to fly back to the capital.