Guardians

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Chapter 9

August 1987

Headquarters of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)

Jamba, Cuando Cabanga Province, Republic of Angola

Lieutenant Jan Vandergriff proceeded to the airstrip in a jeep to await the arrival of the South African government’s visitor to the site, an American technical specialist coming to collect what Jan was told was a crashed Soviet aircraft.

Jan didn’t care for technical types. In his experience they tended to be wrapped up in their own little projects, their own little worlds, like that insufferable Canadian Bull, who’d probably have gone over to the Soviets if they’d promised to build his silly space gun.

The ones who knew there was a world beyond their labs were often more politically liberal than he was comfortable with; they thought human beings were reasonable creatures who would get along fairly if given a chance. A lot of them were atheists, naturally.

What this particular scientist was there to do didn’t make it easier for Jan. He didn’t see why they would just hand the thing over to the Americans, and it must have showed in his face. Briefing him back at headquarters, Piter immediately proceeded to explain that “We’ve made a deal for certain technical information, which they will provide in exchange for being able to examine the craft.”

Cut off from regular sources of modern arms, they’d turned to developing an arms industry of their own, but even self-sufficiency didn’t come without help. “Yes sir,” Jan said, understanding the importance attached to his assignment. Still, he wasn’t comfortable with the vague terms of the deal, especially given the unreliability of the Americans in the past.

Or with the way in which they would carry out the mission. They were supposed to let their visitor lead them straight out to a spot in the veldt, instead of sending a helicopter ahead to find the thing first and lead the rest of the recovery team in.

“He’s worried the helicopter would alert the Soviets to where it landed. They just want access to the airstrip, a few people and vehicles to bring the thing back, that’s all, which suits the government fine.”

So Jan boarded an old Beechcraft and flew north to UNITA’s Jamba headquarters. There he waited for the American’s arrival, announced by the booming of turboprops overhead.

Jan started searching the sky at the sound, and spotted a plane descending toward the field. He saw that it was a big, four-engined cargo aircraft, and then he recognized it as the civilian variant of the C-130, a type of plane used by his own Air Force, and which he’d seen here often enough running in weapons to Savimbi’s guerrillas. The aircraft didn’t have military markings, but then they usually didn’t when they came this way.

The plane lowered its landing gear and touched down. After it came to a stop Jan drove up to it and got out to meet the man descending the steps. He was short, dark-haired, wearing khakis and expensive, aviator-framed sunglasses.

“Lieutenant Jan Vandergriff, South African Army,” he introduced himself.

“Felix Candito,” said the man off the plane.

The name sounded Spanish. “Your ancestry, Mexican?”

“My family came to the U.S. from Cuba.”

“I see,” Jan said. His first thought was that Candito was from the same country that had sent an army and air force across the Atlantic to torment his people here in Africa. Still, he was fighting them same as he was, and had as much reason as any to hate Castro and the Communists. Even more, perhaps.

“This is where you had the famous conference a couple of years before,” Candito said, looking about.

“Yes,” Jan said. Along with their friends in UNITA they held much of the southeastern part of this country, and held it so securely that they could use it for purposes like that.

Back in ’85 the Democratic International hosted representatives of groups engaged in anti-Communist struggles from all over the world – Nicaraguans, Laotians, Afghanis, as well as a good many of their more vocal American supporters. One of them, something Abramoff, talked about hiring him as a consultant on a movie he said he was making.

“It’s quite an operation you’ve set up,” Candito said, looking at the radar antennae. “It’s not the first one I’ve seen.”

There really wasn’t much to see from here, the facility having been carefully dispersed for protective purposes, but Jan didn’t comment on that. “This way to the vehicle and we’ll be on our way,” he said simply.

They got in the jeep and headed out, accompanied by a crane and a flatbed arranged on short notice, as well as three other trucks carrying a platoon of soldiers to provide security and extra hands. Their course took them northward, not quite into the teeth of the Communists, but still crossing into turf much less secure than the base they were departing.

Making things more complicated the Cubans had reportedly been moving a good deal of equipment into the country, making Jan suspect the Communists were planning a big offensive, maybe one even more ambitious than what they attempted in ’85. That the Soviets would have provided a state-of-the-art recon craft only seemed to support the possibility. They probably should have brought a bigger, better-equipped force, just in case things went awry, but Jan appreciated that time was of the essence, especially given that the crash site was a ways off.

Candito pulled a cigarette pack out of his pocket, offered one to him. Jan accepted it.

“I should probably quit,” Candito said after lighting up. He looked at an elephant striding in the distance.

“I’ve tried myself,” Jan admitted. “It’s not easy.”

“No.”

It was a long, hot drive, and they got to talking a bit as Candito got radio fixes on their position using a handheld device; the reason, perhaps, why he refused the other assistance they talked about.

That was another thing about scientists and engineers that made Jan dubious, their overconfidence in their toys. They always imagined they would change everything, but rarely changed anything, at least not anything important. (“What has been will be, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” he remembered.) Jan was mentally prepared to spend a good deal of time wandering the savanna looking for signs of the plane, maybe unsuccessfully.

Still, Candito didn’t seem a bad sort. And Jan felt he could sympathize with his experiences, when Candito told him about his family’s flight from their home after the fall of Batista, and how some people in his adoptive country worried that with Nicaragua fallen, and El Salvador and Guatemala under threat, Mexico could be next, putting them right on the American border.

The free peoples of the world should stick together, Jan agreed, right before Candito asked him to call the column to a halt. Jan gave the order, and then the two of them got out while the rest of the party stayed in their vehicles, walking up a rise to get a better view of the scene. After a couple of minutes scanning in all directions Candito pointed out a silvery-skinned object glimmering underneath the hot African sun, partially concealed by the tall grass.

They walked down the rise and proceeded to the object. Candito looked it over closely and seemed satisfied that it was what they’d come for.

Jan got on his walkie-talkie and ordered the drivers of the other vehicles over to their position.

“It’s partially buried in the ground,” Candito said as they put his orders into action. “We’ll need to free it.”

All the more reason to have the extra help along. He instructed the soldiers with them to help the crew of the crane in making the needed arrangements, leaving a few to stand in positions where they could keep a lookout.

The warzone was vast, and open, and the forces arrayed on each side were limited. That left plenty of room for maneuver. That was part of what let UNITA stay a going concern, since this made it hard for the government to exert full control of its territory, but it also made life tough for anyone standing on the defensive.

While watching the soldiers at work Jan got a call from headquarters on his satellite phone.

“An Air Force patrol has spotted a Cuban unit coming your way. Company-strength, with armor support – tanks,” the speaker told him. “Perhaps fifteen minutes out from your position now.”

They didn’t need to spell it out for Jan. Their group would be outnumbered three or four to one, by an enemy with armor. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, theirs was far from an ideal defensive position. Despite some relief this was mostly flat, open terrain. The daylight and clear weather didn’t do much to redress their disadvantage, either.

Jan let the caller know the message was received and understood, then signed off. He looked around, spotted Candito speaking to one of the workers and walked over to where he was standing, took him aside and had a word with him.

“The Cubans are coming,” Jan said. “I mean –”

“I get it. How long?”

“Fifteen minutes at the very most.”

Candito nodded. “It’ll be enough.” He calmly returned to the work after that. Either he was a sheltered scientist who didn’t get the danger they were in, or he’d been in tight spots before, Jan thought. Somehow he was guessing the latter.

Jan proceeded to the top of a nearby hillock. He raised his binoculars to his eyes and swept them across the northern horizon. Coming out from behind a dune he saw a cloud of dust, focused in on it, and started picking out trucks. One vehicle had a big crane on it, for the same reason they’d brought one no doubt. He picked out tanks, too, T-55s. They’d heard about the Cubans receiving the newer T-62s, but for infantry any tank was bad news, even when they had a couple of anti-tank rocket launchers handy.

Jan lowered the binoculars, turned his attention back to Candito and the soldiers. They’d finished digging the craft out of the ground and attaching it to the end of the crane, and now they were lifting it up and out of its depression.

The thing was bigger than Jan expected, big enough that he was surprised the crane was capable of accommodating its weight. Perhaps the Soviets had built the craft out of new, lightweight materials, which may have been part of the interest the Americans had in it. Certainly it was unlike any aircraft Jan had ever seen.

As far as this job was concerned that was all to the good, Jan thought, seeing it smoothly carried over to the bed of the big truck and lowered onto the flatbed. At once several of the crane’s crew tied it down, then pulled a big tarp over it (to conceal it as much as protect it, Jan guessed), and secured the tarp in its turn.

“All right,” the crew boss shouted. “Let’s go.”

Jan came down from the rise and ran over to the jeep, checking his watch as he got into the driver’s seat. They were cutting it very close, he thought; they were almost within range of the big guns on the T-55s.

Looking back, he also saw that the big dust cloud was continuing to move after them. A glance over at Candito showed that he saw it too, though he stayed unperturbed.

The Cubans were increasingly distant from friendly lines, and Jan looked up. The enemy clearly knew where they were, but so did his people. He hoped to see South African planes overhead dropping bombs on their pursuers, but the Cuban column turned back before that could happen, and Jan’s convoy continued the rest of the way back to the strip unimpeded.

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