Guardians

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Chapter 32

“As we were told,” Jan said to his assembled teammates, “the base looks clean, well-maintained, well-run. General Stepanenkov’s very attentive to appearances. He probably even arranged for those MiG-29s to take off on their flight when we came by, just for the effect it would have on a customer.

“At the same time, he was rather cautious about what he showed me. He didn’t offer me a grand tour of the base, and he avoided boasting about other clients, or what he was able to do for them.

“He also didn’t invite me into the warehouses, though it would have been a way of persuading me that he can deliver the goods. The only really interesting thing I got to see was the office I told you about.”

“That’s right,” Emma said, “out of the way, where the staff wouldn’t be able to listen in, and to which no one else is supposed to have access.”

“Yes, unlike his regular office, with the anteroom, and the secretary, and all the base’s official business. But like I said, that was my guess, not anything he told me beyond saying we’d have our privacy,” Jan answered.

“And it wasn’t just him, but all the people there were quite tight-lipped. I didn’t let on that I know Russian, thinking that maybe Stepanenkov or a subordinate would let something slip. They didn’t.”

“The guards who babysat us were the same way,” Kurt told them.

“Still, I can say that Stepanenkov takes security as seriously as you’d expect from all that trouble he takes. We all saw regular patrols about the perimeter, and guards outside the headquarters building.”

Bill and Kurt nodded.

“You ask me,” Bill said, “the people he uses aren’t new conscripts, not the ones we dealt with. They’re older, look like they’ve been doing this a few years. Plus, the ones we actually had to deal with don’t slack off on the job. The guys at the front gate didn’t just wave us through. They made us wait for confirmation before letting us in. For a moment, I actually thought they weren’t going to.”

“My guess is that he’s been in a position not only to beef up the base security force,” Kurt offered, “but to pick and choose the people he’s got pulling guard duty here, and he’s probably compensating them accordingly.

“They’re not skimping on gear, either. The guards had good-quality body armor not issued to very many units, plus radios that certainly aren’t standard issue – imports, I think. The same goes for some of the night-vision equipment we saw some of them carrying.

“For that matter, the fencing around the facility looked to be in good repair at every point we passed.”

“Tell us more about the office,” Emma said. “Any sign of a safe inside? Or a storage area?”

“No,” Jan said, as someone who knew what to look for. “I’ll admit, I didn’t have a chance to examine it thoroughly – he was with me, watching me the whole time – but if there’s anything like that in there, it’s very well-hidden indeed.”

“You did mention a computer, though. Did he use it while you were there? Enter any information?”

“So far as I could tell, it wasn’t even on. All that equipment may be there just for show, to make it look like a well-equipped office.”

“But then again, there is the privacy element, isn’t there?” Emma asked. “You said he dismissed Drykin before you went in? And that you were alone in the corridor leading up to it?”

“That’s true.”

They’d already discussed his other, “official” office, his personal residence on the base – and the mansion he was reportedly building for himself nearby.

“Given all that, that office seems a more likely place for him to keep any sensitive information than the other places he’s got,” Emma said.

They sketched a plan to get at it. Emma volunteered to go in, and Bill to get her there, right after which she started having misgivings. She’d been trained for this kind of work, of course, but she’d never done it for real, in a situation where the guards weren’t just playing a part in an exercise, but real enemies who would fire real bullets.

Still, she didn’t share any of those thoughts with the rest of the group, any more than they would have shared them with her. After all, the point was to be a good team player, and pull her weight, and do her job (and she had to admit that her own contacts in the city hadn’t turned up much).

Emma studied the pictures and notes on the Ugransky base the team had at its disposal, and drew up a plan, then packed a black duffel bag with the equipment she’d need for the excursion. That night she and Bill dressed in hooded black jumpsuits and went out to the Lada Sputnik, which he drove along the road passing the base. He slowed down short of the exit to let her get out, and into the forest.

Moving through the woods, the duffel slung over her shoulder, the adrenaline surging through her veins, she advanced and halted, advanced and halted, watching for changes around her and moving on when she didn’t see them. She made steady progress to the tree line, then paused for a bit to study the three hundred meters of flat, open ground between the trees and the fence, in full view of the patrols along the perimeter, the men in the guard towers.

Emma took a deep breath and then began to advance again, feeling very naked, even under the cover of darkness, even in these small hours of the morning when the alertness of the guards was at rock bottom.

No searchlight flipped on, no people raced about, no warning shot cracked over her head, and she continued to move forward.

When she was halfway to the fence a patrol with a dog came into sight.

She froze.

The guard with the dog moved past, never giving any indication either he or the dog had noticed her.

Emma continued to the fence, climbed up it, stepped over the barbed wire and came down on its other side. From there she moved deliberately through the compound, staying in the shadows and using what cover she could find. The additional infrastructure on the base was an asset in that regard, providing her with more cover than she would have had otherwise.

As she’d hoped, it was easy enough to get to the headquarters building from the eastern end of the base. She was pleased to see that the lights were out in most of the windows, Stepanenkov’s included if Jan had identified it to her correctly. The soldiers lurking around the building were easy enough to sidestep, and after that she had a clear path to the office Jan had visited when he was here.

There was no light under the door, no sound coming from inside, which meant the room should have been empty. She looked up and down that hallway, and then turned her attention to the door. After checking it to make sure no one had left it unlocked (which would save her the trouble of practicing this particular art) Emma got a hollow pen containing a set of picks and tension tools out of one of the duffel’s side pockets. She selected one of each, then put the pick in the keyhole and carefully raised the tumblers to the opening point. She also put the end of the tension tool directly below the pick, keeping the pressure on the pins so that they held in the open position as she rotated the handle.

The work came along more slowly than Emma would have liked; the General had taken the trouble to put a decent lock on his door. But no one interrupted her, and soon enough she felt the vibration in her fingers that told her she was making progress, and the click of the lock coming open that told her she’d achieved her goal.

Emma budged the door open just enough to keep it from accidentally locking on her before she was inside, then pulled the pick and the tension tool away. She eased herself through the opening, then shut and locked the door behind her as quietly as possible, and switched on her pen light.

Her back covered, she approached the desk with the computer on it and swept her pen light over it, looking for the PC’s power switch. (As Jan said, it was an imported IBM.) Emma turned the computer on, waited as the system ran up. The General was using a Microsoft Windows 3.0 operating system – an English-language edition of the software, interestingly enough.

She wondered why he was using English programs to keep his records, but then it occurred to her that there might not yet have been a Russian edition, and that he likely preferred foreign electronics. (She remembered Jan’s mention of imported radios for the base guards.)

The start-up process halted abruptly, the computer demanding a password.

Emma knew computer users typically kept their password in the same room (remembering them was a pain, so people liked to keep them handy), and she started looking for it. As it happened there was a small piece of paper taped to the underside of the desk which read STROGANOV1515 (in Latin, not Cyrillic, lettering).

Emma typed the word in and the start-up process continued, the security system apparently satisfied that she’d provided the right code. This gave her full access to the computer’s memory.

Emma opened her bag, extracted the digital tape case from the bag and the tape from the case, and then popped it into the drive. Once she was sure the drive was working she started systematically hunting down every likely looking folder and file and copying it to the tape, transferring large chunks of the computer’s memory in the process. While waiting for a file transfer to complete, she busied herself performing the other part of the job, giving the office the thorough going-over that Jan couldn’t. She saw the second door in the office, checked out what was behind it – a bathroom, not very large, but just as handsomely appointed as the office. More slowly and methodically, she shone her pen light over the walls and the floor, looking for anything that might indicate a hidden door. Nothing turned up.

It would have been a great relief to find the ellipton here and just walk out with it. She’d known it was a long shot, but she still felt a bit let down.

Someone walked past the office door at one point, but they didn’t stop, speak, or give any sign of interest in the room. More importantly, they didn’t come back before Emma was done.

The task of searching the room and copying the computer’s memory completed, she popped the tape out of the drive and stowed it safely in her bag, then exited Windows before pushing the power button to turn the computer off. Then Emma left the room as carefully as she’d entered it, making sure the door locked behind her as she proceeded through the hallway. Retracing her course in reverse, she slipped back off the base and into the woods to find Bill waiting in his car.

He was craning his neck, looking past her, like he thought someone might have followed her back. There was no one there, but he still floored the gas as soon as she was in the car, intent on getting them away from the base as quickly as humanly possible.

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