Smolensk Oblast, R.F.
For the very last time Nick’s people left the house, going over to the barn and assembling inside their vehicles. Martin was to drive the minibus, carrying Nick and the other members of the group infiltrating the base – Emma, Mike, Bill, Greg, Gabe, Rod, Dane, Bob, Gus and Kurt. Jan drove the smaller van, also carrying Hank, Abrams and their equipment.
Martin drove out first. He went off the road prior to hitting the exit leading to the base, took a turn through the woods, and continued to approach the base’s eastern perimeter, stopping a kilometer short of it (according to their GPS receivers). There the other passengers got out, while he stayed behind to assist in evacuating them if they were forced to call off the assault.
Dressed in hooded black jumpsuits (light ballistic armor under the fabric, heavier armor plate over it) and matching ski masks, the eleven made their way through the trees, across the field under the eyes in those towers, and over the fence, into the airbase. Nick was in charge of the operation, but because Emma knew the territory best she led the infiltration, the rest of the group halting and advancing as she did. The woods were still unpatrolled by Stepanenkov’s people, and the same went for the cleared ground leading up to the fence, the eastern side of the compound no more difficult to penetrate than it had been for Emma the last time.
Their destination was different, however, the group making not for the headquarters building, but the vehicle park across the runway from it, and a hundred meters or so further west, between one of the big warehouses, and the squadron facilities clustered around the base’s easternmost apron.
They’d picked it in advance as a logical place to lie low and watch, because of its proximity to the headquarters, and its good view up and down that runway. It also seemed unlikely that they’d be disturbed there; they guessed from their being parked next to the warehouse that they were part of Stepanenkov’s transport fleet. According to the General’s files, there was no call for them tonight.
Closer in, Nick picked out a vehicle for them to shelter in, a canvas-sided heavy truck one row back from the front, a big Gaz-66. It was capacious enough to fit all of them comfortably, and it didn’t have any other vehicles blocking its path, or the line of sight from its cab to the runway and the HQ building on the other side of it.
Bill took the driver’s seat, Nick the passenger-side seat in the cab. The nine others got into the back of the truck (which Nick knew was capable of accommodating twice as many), seating themselves on the benches running along its sides, concealed from passerby by the canvas sheltering the bed.
“We’ve got gas in the tank,” Bill said. “Not much, but some.”
“Good,” Nick said as he got out his binoculars. “We can use that.” He didn’t expect the ellipton to come to them. They’d have to move and if they did, this was certainly the vehicle to do it in. The big Gaz was not terribly fast, but its size and power made it tough for anyone to stop it if they had to make a dash.
The first item of interest was the headquarters building, which had its usual complement of guards waiting about its surrounding grounds. Satisfied that he had a good sense of the area Nick lowered his binoculars and raised them again only when something in the distance caught his interest. Neither of them said anything for a while after that, and in line with his instruction to minimize radio use, no one transmitted any messages. They just stayed in the dark, unheated truck in the sub-freezing weather, drinking coffee out of their thermoses and eating candy bars to sustain their energy.
* * *
Jan, Hank and Abrams drove out twenty minutes after that. Like Martin they went off-road before hitting the base and continued through the woods the rest of the way, but to a different destination, a point about half a kilometer away from the center of the perimeter’s southern side.
Bundled up in their winter camo they got out of the van, assembled the mortar and made a neat stack of mortar rounds next to it, all high-explosive-fragmentation rounds.
While studying the base’s security they had all agreed that they needed to hit a number of targets scattered around the base, to neutralize threats to their take-over of the plane, and provide covering distractions.
Kurt thought of planting a number of bombs on the base and detonating them when they needed the targets neutralized. That would have meant dividing the team when the schedule was very uncertain, and the widened area and type of activity increased the risk they’d tip off the base’s security detail before they made their move.
Nick asked for alternatives.
“We get a mortar and set it up outside the perimeter, and then on cue the team hits pre-selected points corresponding to the targets that we can see in this picture,” Jan suggested. “If these warehouses are packed with ammo like we’ve been guessing, it may not take too much to get them burning.
“It won’t be as good as having the crew coordinate with a spotter, but it should be enough to nail big, immobile targets, and cause some chaos too.” Jan knew personally what it was like to be on the receiving end of a mortar attack; nothing like getting hit with a salvo of Grad rockets or a shower of howitzer shells, but still not conducive to sound, quick thinking on the part of the enemy. “We work fast, and then when the job’s done, we get out fast.”
Accordingly, Nick’s purchase from the dealer included an eighty-two millimeter mortar and the fifty rounds that Jan estimated (on the basis of the mortar’s accuracy at set ranges, the killing radius of the bombs, and the likely percentage of duds) was the absolute minimum they needed to cover all of the targets on their list.
Jan had commanded a mortar crew during his time in Bravo Group, and also had some experience with the eighty-two millimeter Soviet type from his time working with UNITA. (South Africa had supplied the rebels with the weapon, acquired from stocks captured on the battlefield by friendly countries which had fought their own wars with Soviet proxies.) Accordingly, Nick had assigned him the run of that side of the operation. Hank had actually been part of a mortar team during Operation Just Cause, and Abram was also familiar with such equipment from his IDF days, which made them logical members of his section.
Still, given the roughness of their skill with this model, Jan figured that they would need four minutes to get off the shots. Four minutes could be a very long time in a situation like this. If Stepanenkov’s security people managed to get their helicopter in the air during it, they’d be in real danger, which was one reason why the Mi-8 was at the top of their list of targets. Next up there were the fighters of the duty-alert section, and then a few bombs each for the vehicle concentrations and the warehouses.
Having figured it all out, what remained for them was to actually do it, and right now Jan was very eager to get the job underway.
* * *
Two hours after their arrival the mood was a mixture of boredom and tension as they continued waiting for something to happen.
As expected, no one came near the trucks, the only other vehicle moving about the base bus making its rounds. As far as Nick could tell, base operations had been shut down for the night, none of the squadrons looking like they were launching a plane – maybe because Stepanenkov needed to keep the runway free for his guests.
The roaring of jet engines overhead caught Nick’s attention. He looked up and saw a plane approaching from the west, descending over the runway.
He raised his binoculars back to his eyes. Through them he could see it was a fairly big plane, a trijet halfway between a business jet and a small airliner in size.
The plane continued its landing run toward them, coming to a stop a hundred meters or so short of the headquarters building. He continued studying the aircraft, and remembered seeing it before. It was a Dassault Falcon-series aircraft, and given its size it was almost certainly the 900 – the stretch model of the old Falcon 50.
He couldn’t be sure it was the plane they’d come for, but clearly this one wouldn’t be carrying away any bulk cargo, so either they were taking nothing out, or picking up something very small.
Like the ellipton.
Nick thought about the list of aircraft Mike had claimed experience in and didn’t remember any of the Falcon series being on it, let alone the 900. He didn’t even know that Mike had flown any trijets. But it was too late to worry about that now, and there was still a lot to do before that became a concern.
The Falcon’s passenger door opened, dropping to the runway. He could see steps built into it, down which three men walked. The man in the lead was the smallest of the group, the only one who didn’t carry himself like a bodyguard. Nick guessed he was doing the deal, and that the other two were along for protection.
When they were all on the ground Nick noticed that one of the men he took for bodyguards was holding a briefcase. He guessed that it contained the payment for the purchase.
He shifted his gaze down the runway, saw an Uaz light truck (canvas-sided like their own, but much smaller than the big Gaz) approaching the plane. It parked some distance short of the jet’s nose. Nick wasn’t surprised to see Stepanenkov himself step out of the Uaz, escorted by another soldier holding a rifle across his chest.
Stepanenkov shook hands with the man Nick was thinking of as the Buyer, exchanged some words with him. Probably just greetings, but he wished he knew what they were saying all the same.
Nick didn’t see the device anywhere, though, and it seemed to him Stepanenkov wasn’t bringing it to them, but picking them up for a ride to some other point on the base, possibly to where he was keeping the ellipton. The sight of the whole party getting into Stepanenkov’s Uaz confirmed his guess.
However, he was surprised to see another two men come down from the Falcon and take positions at the base of the stairs.
The now crowded Uaz took the base’s commander and his guests back to the headquarters building.
“Well, what now?” Bill asked.
“We wait some more,” Nick told him, noticing Bill’s gloved hands poised on the steering wheel. He sighed audibly. “Wait for them to come back from wherever the hell it is they have the stupid thing.”
It occurred to him that the headquarters building might have been just a first stop, but no vehicle left the building. Stepanenkov’s guests stayed. He also saw that no other vehicle drove over to the HQ, bringing in a package from another site at the base.
The guards posted by the plane’s entrance just stood there with their hands in their pockets, not talking, scanning everything around them like they thought someone would sneak up and try something. No tanker-truck came to the plane, no mechanics, the contact between the plane and anyone else at the base minimal.
Nick thought of how the Uaz parked a little way away from the aircraft, instead of right at the steps, like it was part of the protocol for the exchange. There was probably not much trust between the buyers and Stepanenkov, perhaps fearful that he’d try something funny with them. Maybe something to keep them from getting away with the goods after they paid for them. Sabotage or the planting of a tracking device perhaps.
He filed the speculation away for its potential usefulness later. But it was reason to hope that their time on the ground would be short, and they’d be back at the plane soon, along with the item they’d presumably come to get.
Nick started turning the situation over in his mind. There were the three men he’d already seen, who would be coming back to the plane sometime – maybe directly from the headquarters building, maybe not. There were also the two other men waiting outside, at the foot of those steps. Five men outside, maybe more inside, perhaps a lot more given the plane’s capacity. (He knew it could hold twenty or so, counting the crew.)
“Greg?” he said over the radio.
“We may need the Dragunov. Get out and set up.”
He turned to Bill. “I think we’ll have to move fast after all,” he said.
“What have you got in mind?”
* * *
Greg climbed down out of the back of the big Gaz, hauling the sniper rifle along over his shoulder. He proceeded to the next truck, then got down on the ground and crawled underneath it, moving toward the front end of the vehicle. He had a view of the plane from there, and just enough room in which to work. He laid the submachine gun down next to him, then moved the Dragunov in front of him, rested the barrel in its bipod and looked out through the sight.
There they were, the two men guarding the plane. Lining the sight up on the forehead of the man on the left he settled the end of the rifle in the pocket of his right shoulder, holding the forestock steady with his left hand, while his right held the small of the rifle’s stock firmly, not rigidly, keeping the pressure on his shoulder, and curled his finger around the trigger.
He took a deep breath in, then out. In, out. In, out.
* * *
Bill shifted in his seat. Nick unwrapped another candy bar. Halfway through eating it he saw the door of the headquarters building open again, and three figures moving to the Uaz – the Buyer and his guards.
One of them was carrying what looked like a briefcase. It was a different guard doing the carrying this time, though. The case also wasn’t the briefcase they’d brought in earlier, but a metal object bound with metallic-looking straps that secured it to a handle letting the bearer carry it in a similar manner.
Seeing it Nick felt sure this was the ellipton. His body tensed instantly.
“They’ve got it,” Nick said, and Bill answered him by turning the engine over.
“Get ready,” Nick said over the radio, to everybody. He could feel the tension in his body rising another notch, sense nearby bodies also tensing for action.
The three men from the plane were in the Uaz now, which was driving out to the Falcon.
“Now!” he shouted to everyone, here in the truck and waiting outside the perimeter too, “Go!”
Their big Gaz lurched forward, tearing away from the others in the park and barreling across the runway at an angle, taking it toward the Uaz.
The first mortar bomb was already coming down somewhere in the distance when their truck slammed into the side of the Uaz, shoving it several feet and flipping it onto its side before Bill killed the big Gaz’s momentum.
By then Nick’s teammates were already jumping out the back of the vehicle. The shock of the collision smothered by his adrenaline rush, Nick threw open the passenger-side door of the cab and dove out, onto the tarmac.
He shifted to a crouching position, brought up his gun, saw that the two guards by the plane’s entrance were lying on the runway under the plane, one man’s head in a pool of blood; saw Bob, Mike, Kurt running toward the plane per his orders, Gabe coming up behind; Bob standing aside from the plane’s open side door and flinging in a flash-bang before leading Mike and Kurt up the steps, Gabe staying in a crouching position by the stairs, from which he covered their entry.
Nick joined the rest of his people as they swarmed around the Uaz. While Gus and Dane pointed their submachine guns down at the people trapped inside the vehicle, Emma trained her own gun on the Buyer, Rod pulled him out and to his feet. He then walked their new prisoner toward the plane while Gus extricated the ellipton from inside the vehicle.
There was another boom in the distance. Nick heard the roar of engines, not the Falcon’s big turbofans but diesels.
They were fairly distant, and he wasn’t sure they were moving in his direction, but he kept listening to them.
Nick glanced back across the runway toward the vehicle park, saw a figure running hard toward them. Greg, his Dragunov wisely abandoned as an unnecessary encumbrance now. Rod, the Buyer, Emma, Gus, Dane and Bill moved toward the plane, while Nick followed behind them. He stopped at the steps, watching Greg headed their way. He was almost there.
“Get in the plane,” he told Gabe. “I’ll cover you.”
Gabe nodded, ran up the steps. A rifle on automatic stuttered somewhere, but the shots didn’t come anywhere near them. Greg bolted by, and then with everyone accounted for Nick ran up into the plane himself, keeping his head low. He heard a bullet hit concrete near him but he didn’t hear another follow it as he got inside the plane.
* * *
On the flight deck Kurt and Mike held guns on the two men seated at the controls, hands raised in the air.
Kurt took a quick look at the Falcon’s instrument panel. “Can you fly this?” he asked Mike.
“Yes. I can do it.”
“Okay. You – get up,” he told the gray-haired pilot, who obediently rose from his seat and moved around, hands still up, to the place against the wall at which Kurt pointed his gun. “You,” he told the copilot, “don’t so much as breathe unless my friend here tells you to. Got it?”
“Yes, fine,” said the copilot in a working-class British accent as Mike settled into the pilot’s chair, letting his submachine gun hang on the strap over his shoulder.
“Fuck it – what the hell have we been doing here?”
“I was hoping you’d be able to tell us more about that,” Kurt said. “But be quiet. Mike’s got to concentrate.”
Kurt studied Mike’s expression as he studied the panel, trying to take it all in. At this point, there was nothing to do but trust to the man’s abilities.
“Any modifications on this plane we should know about?” Kurt asked the pilot.
“What the hell are you talking about?” the pilot snapped as the engines fired up.
* * *
As the door closed behind Nick he saw that the other members of his team had settled into seats around the passenger cabin, all of them apparently in one piece. The Buyer was sitting among them, his earlier aura of authority vanished completely. The pinstriped suit he was wearing underneath his coat somehow seemed incongruous here.
“Emma,” Nick said, “you talk to him, see what we can get out of him,” then turned toward the flight deck. A quick check of his watch showed that even though it felt like much longer it had been less than a minute since he’d given everyone the order to move.
The ambush had been a perfect success, quick, decisive, zero-casualty for their side, which was all the more remarkable given how improvised it had been. But now they had to get away with their prize, which he knew would be at least as tricky.
“I know it’s a VIP transport, but some of them have countermeasures,” Kurt explained to the pilot he’d apparently backed against the wall as Nick walked in. “Chaff, flares, ECM?”
“This is just a regular plane,” he answered. “A regular corporate plane.”
“If that’s the case, what the fuck did you think you were doing here, flying into a Russian fighter base in the dead of night?”
“I didn’t ask a lot of questions when they offered the job –”
“Get him out of here,” Nick said, motioning toward the passenger cabin with the barrel of his gun. “I’ll watch Mike’s back.”
“Sure.” Kurt shoved the pilot along past him, while Nick took his earlier place, looking over the shoulder of the remaining copilot.
He remembered that the Falcon wasn’t refueled after landing. The plane had transcontinental range, but it was still best to be sure.
“We’ve got enough fuel in the tanks to make it?” he asked Mike.
“With plenty to spare.”
“What was the original flight plan?” Nick demanded of the copilot.
“From Glasgow to here and back.”
Scotland was a lot further away than any place they meant to go to. Yes, they could make the trip without needing the plane refueled.
* * *
Stepanenkov had walked his customers to the door of the building, after which he watched them get in the truck and ride away before departing for his office. Before he reached it, the sound of screeching tires and a violent crash made him run back to the door of the building.
He looked to the plane, saw the big truck in front of it (all but on top of the jeep he’d ridden in mere minutes earlier, which he would have been riding in if Mr. Pickford hadn’t turned down his offer to escort him back to his plane), the muzzle flashes of weapons being fired.
They were under attack, and the attackers were after the plane.
The security detail hadn’t reported anything amiss, but how those men got past his base’s defenses didn’t matter now. Stopping them did.
Stepanenkov ran to his office and got on the phone to Lebedev, whom he knew to be working late in his office that night.
“I want the control tower to hail the plane, in English,” Stepanenkov said, an unusual step in that it did not routinely communicate with the pilots of the non-military aircraft that routinely flew in and out of the base. “Have them inform those holding the plane that they will be attacked if they do not surrender. Also have the tower pass on to you any intelligence they gather on the identity and intentions of the hijackers in the course of the dialogue.”
“Yes Comrade General,” Lebedev said.
“I also want this base’s every resource mobilized to stop the aircraft. I want the duty-alert section to prepare to launch the fighters, I want the squadrons to prep every serviceable aircraft for launch as soon as possible.” With only one runway they could sortie only so many aircraft in so many minutes, and he wasn’t even sure what he’d do with all those planes, but he wanted to maximize his options.
“And I want you to contact Parolow, make sure he knows what’s going on,” he continued. “Tell him that I want everyone he can get over at the eastern end of the field –”
He heard a boom, a really loud one, not like the earlier explosions. It made him stop in mid-sentence and the silence he heard at Lebedev’s end of the line told him they’d heard it in the tower too.
“What was that?”
“I’ll find out, Comrade General.” There was some chatter in the background. “It seems that it was one of the warehouses –”
Stepanenkov didn’t say anything. Was it possible the aircraft, its passengers, its cargo wasn’t the only objective of the attackers? He didn’t know. But he also couldn’t afford to let himself be distracted.
“Concentrate on the aircraft. We’ll see to all that later. One more thing. I want a vehicle and driver ready to get me to the control tower by the time I get outside. And I’m leaving my office now.” He slammed the phone’s receiver into its cradle.
The violence of the action relieved a very little bit of the rage he was feeling, but did nothing to assuage the terror he was starting to feel. He’d known from the beginning that this deal wasn’t like all the others he’d overseen these last few months. He was just a facilitator, getting a piece of cargo he didn’t know or understand to very rich, very mysterious customers who were never identified for him. And then General Shadrin died, in an accident he was told, but the timing was alarming nonetheless –
No, he couldn’t think about those things now, he told himself, getting up from behind his desk and marching himself out the door, on his way out to meet up with the vehicle that should have been pulling up any second now. Somehow, he’d set things right, see this deal through.
* * *
“To the hijackers of the Dassault Falcon: I repeat, if you do not immediately exit the aircraft and surrender, we will use force,” repeated the voice hailing them over the radio from the base’s control tower.
Nick wondered what they were hoping to achieve with the threat. They didn’t think people who’d snuck into the base and fought their way aboard the plane would be much affected by a threat like that, did they?
Especially given the prize they’d captured in doing so?
He was tempted to try and exploit the channel of communication they’d opened, threaten to activate the device if they made a move toward the plane, but it seemed too obvious a bluff. And if they didn’t take it for a bluff, there was the danger they’d panic and do something crazy, especially if they didn’t know what the ellipton was, as the analysts back in D.C. had guessed they might not.
No, any stunt like that could blow up in their faces, and it was best not to answer at all, especially with the Falcon’s engines roaring steadily now. “How long?” he asked.
“Any second,” Mike muttered.
Nick looked out the windshield. He saw smoke on the horizon, likely coming from fires started by landing mortar bombs. He didn’t see any vehicles blocking their path just yet as he felt the plane start its takeoff run. He didn’t see that alert helicopter flying overhead, and he didn’t see any sign that a MiG had been scrambled to shoot them down, or even that they were about to get hit in the face with the barrage of bullets and shoulder-fired rockets he knew the security detail could raise.
It seemed that the mortar crew had succeeded in its job of covering them. He hoped Jan and his people were doing all right, Martin too, but didn’t try contacting them now. Their orders were to observe radio silence between the time the assault got underway and their exfiltration from the country. With any luck, Stepanenkov’s people would forget all about their friends on the ground when the mortar attack stopped.
The Falcon continued to accelerate, and the path remained clear in front of them.
Nick stepped back from behind Mike and the copilot, and dropped into the flight deck’s jump seat. He deftly strapped himself in, sucked in his breath as the still-speeding aircraft passed the fighters at their aprons (around some of which men were scrambling), the burning buildings, the control towers near the runway’s end which loomed larger and larger, and then felt that familiar sensation of being in a plane as it left the ground behind.
They were in the air.