Guardians

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Chapter 38

Ugransky Air Force Base

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

Stepanenkov ordered his driver to keep clear of the runway, and instead keep on the opposite side of the buildings lining it. Passing them he saw the burning warehouses, the flaming wreck of the alert helicopter, men and vehicles moving in the opposite direction to the east end of the base – not nearly so many as there should have been, but then the other attacks were killing and wounding men, and interfering with the survivor’s reactions.

Then, just as the control tower came into sight, he glimpsed the silhouette of a trijet moving swiftly between the structures. A moment later the aircraft was off the ground.

Stepanenkov screamed curses at it, the curses continuing as he jumped out of the Uaz and charged into the control tower. Inside he got on the nearest phone and called up the nearby duty-alert building. “What’s the status of the duty-alert section?” he demanded, hoping for some good news.

“Some of the mortar bombs that fell on the base went in their direction,” reported the duty officer. “One of the planes is a total loss. Another two planes took hits, though we haven’t yet assessed the damage –”

“And the fourth?”

“It is undamaged, and as ordered the pilot is in the cockpit. Still –”

Stepanenkov cursed. “I want you to get that plane in the air, now!”

His tone made it clear that he would not be lectured about the appropriate precautions.

“Yes Comrade General. What are your orders for the pilot?”

“He is to intercept that plane and force it to come back,” Stepanenkov said. “If those in control of the plane don’t comply with his order, he is to be prepared to shoot it down. But I don’t want him taking any precipitous action. He is to fire only when ordered to do so, and only as ordered to do so.”

* * *

Captain Leonid Tymoshenko had been sleeping in the dormitory inside the duty-alert building before the sound of explosions woke him.

He was astonished to find an attack underway, then ordered out to his plane without explanation. Like a good soldier he went out to his plane. Past the flaming debris near the door of the building, up the waiting ladder, under the raised canopy, into the cockpit. There he performed the routine equipment checks as the wreckage from a shattered MiG burned next to his aircraft.

The fighting continued off in the distance, away from him. There were clouds of smoke in the distance, and several warehouses seemed to be on fire. He thought of the Makarov pistol he had on him, the possibility that he might have to use it.

But whoever was attacking the base wasn’t coming his way. The muzzle flashes were over at the opposite end of the runway, toward which he saw a vehicle racing. It all seemed to center on a big plane, either a little airliner or a very large executive jet, parked near the headquarters building.

The plane started moving in his direction, picking up speed and rolling past him – past his cannon and missiles – and rising into the air, and it was only then that he got the order from the tower to proceed.

Tymoshenko punched the button that fired up his engines, engine two roaring first, then engine one starting automatically as it powered up.

As he watched his displays Tymoshenko wondered what had kept the tower from sending him up the whole time he’d been sitting there. If he’d been ordered into the air before that other plane took off he would have been in a position to intercept it immediately, shoot it down if necessary. Now he would have to give chase.

Still, that he was sitting here when the order came saved some time. Normally he’d have needed five minutes to get into the air, but because he was in the cockpit when the “go” order came he needed just half that.

Tymoshenko wasn’t able to identify the plane that shot by, but the tower told him it was a Dassault Falcon. He didn’t know much about the model, but it was almost certainly a subsonic aircraft. As the other plane would have at most a three-minute lead over him, it would be only thirty miles away before he was in the air. He would be able to overtake it in a matter of minutes, well before it left the country’s airspace.

When the output of his engines stabilized he rolled onto the runway to start his own run. Within moments the tarmac was hurtling past his wings as he accelerated steadily. After the speedometer hit two hundred and fifty kilometers an hour Tymoshenko pulled the control stick back, rotating the MiG’s nose up and lifting the main gear off the runway. He retracted the landing gear, and continued to raise the plane’s nose, all the way up to a fifty-degree angle of attack as he thundered into the sky.

* * *

Belarus was the nearest other country, but their bosses didn’t regard it as a secure place from which to extract the team, and so they headed for Latvia instead.

It was about five hundred kilometers from Ugransky Air Force Base to the Latvian border – thirty to forty minutes’ flying time, Nick knew. The Falcon had already been flying three minutes, without incident.

Still, he knew they were very far from being out of trouble. He tried to remember if he’d noticed the state of the planes at the duty-alert section. There were fires in the area, but he couldn’t be sure they’d all been disabled by the mortar attack.

He also thought of the MiGs he’d seen being armed and fueled along the aprons. They would be slower to react, and might not catch up with them before they crossed the border. But he also knew the MiG-29 carried the R-27 missile, which had a hundred-mile lethal range. Despite the risk of hitting a different target he didn’t think Stepanenkov would shy away from ordering a beyond-visual-range kill if that was his only choice.

And there was a great deal else here to menace them, in the scene of the thickest and most advanced air defenses in the whole of the former Soviet empire – other fighter squadrons, and surface-to-air missile batteries, not just here in Russia but over the Latvian border as well, where there were still plenty of Russian troops, even if their hands were officially tied by their being in another, sovereign country. They’d never know if they were being tracked, or locked onto, or even fired at, short of a threat on the radio or their spotting a tail fire.

Or being blown up.

And there was no guarantee they’d be safe once they were over the border. The new Latvian republic didn’t have much of an air force, and the Russians’ respect for the little country’s sovereignty was not something they could count on – especially when Moscow’s hold on Stepanenkov’s leash wasn’t a tight one.

Still, Nick knew he would feel better when they were over that line.

* * *

According to the battle-control officer back at regimental headquarters the Falcon was heading west/northwest along a straight-line path to Latvia. Tymoshenko maneuvered his aircraft onto the same course and flipped on his radar.

He identified the Falcon, a big, easy target in a nearly empty quadrant, and set the radar to tracking it. He didn’t see it maneuver, alter speed or direction, or attempt to use any countermeasures he could detect. If they knew he was up here following them, they certainly gave no sign of it, not that there seemed very much they could do about it.

Tymoshenko closed the distance, up until he made out the aircraft with his unaided eye, flying with its lights off. As he closed with it he hit the airbrakes, raised his flaps and throttled his engines, sloughing off his momentum so that he fell into a position just behind and below the business jet. He made a positive identification of the aircraft by checking its tail, where its code was prominently displayed and then, keeping low, accelerated so that he was right next to the cockpit when he switched his running lights back on.

* * *

Nick was suddenly aware of a bright light on his left. He left his seat and rose to his feet, the better to see the source, and beheld a fighter plane, flying slightly above and to the left of the Falcon, all lit up. Appearing suddenly in the dark, and so close that he could make out the head and shoulders of the pilot underneath its bubble canopy, it seemed huge and demonic.

He moved to the window for a better look, just in time to see the MiG-29 rock its wings up and down while flashing its lights.

“It’s the interception signal,” Mike explained. “He wants us to follow him.”

“Out of the question,” Nick said, thinking about how the pilot was using visual signals only, rather than radioing them. Maybe that was because they’d ignored the earlier radio hail when they were still on the runway back at the base, but maybe it was that Stepanenkov didn’t want his people broadcasting the situation to the world any more than they absolutely had to. And maybe they wanted to leave as little room for games as possible.

Nick went on studying the MiG, the missiles on its wings, which were of two types. He didn’t recognize either one right now, but it occurred to him that either of them would suffice to knock them out of the sky. The fact that he hadn’t already used them meant that shooting them down was only a second choice, so clearly they still had some wriggle room.

If the plane had come from Stepanenkov’s base it had probably used afterburners to catch up to them. This used up fuel in a hurry, and he knew the MiG-29 didn’t have much to spare. If it wasn’t for the belly tank, the pilot might already have been eyeing his fuel gauge.

Of course, if the MiG couldn’t keep up with them anymore it might simply use its gun and missiles to shoot them down.

When planning the attack on the air base they’d looked at fields between the base and the border, considered some possible alternative landing sites, places they could set down in the event of battle damage or an accident, or if for some other reason they decided to complete their escape on the ground. Between the diversion from their current flight path a turn to those sites required, and Stepanenkov not giving them the chance to talk their way out of this corner, he didn’t like their odds of getting to any of them –

“Do what they want,” Nick said. “Start a landing run. Right here.”

“Here?”

“Yes. Right here. Lower the gear and hit the deck.” He stuck his head out the flight deck’s door and hollered for everyone to hang on, then strapped himself back down in his jump seat.

* * *

Tymoshenko saw the pilot in the other aircraft nod at him, and then he peeled away to give the larger plane room to turn. He was pleased that he had accomplished his task so easily, but part of him was still disappointed that he did not even have the chance to use his gun to fire off a warning shot –

Instead of the Falcon making a slow level turn, what happened was that the plane just dove, its crew apparently trying to escape.

Tymoshenko reported the change in its course and as he expected, received the order to fire – just one burst, twenty-five rounds. He set the fire-rate switch accordingly, then flipped the weapons sensor switch to “narrow field of view” so that he could get a lock-on more quickly. The targeted plane, flying ahead of and below him, was instantly awash in red on his infrared scope.

A bold “A” appeared in the left margin of his Heads-Up Display, indicating that his laser range finder was measuring the distance to the target, and feeding the firing solution to his computer. His circular gun sight flashed red, and he hit the trigger . . .

* * *

There was no way the Falcon could outrun the MiG, no way its passengers could fight back. But a quick, unexpected maneuver might unbalance a pilot not entirely sure of what to do, or bring some quirk of the MiG’s radar into play (Nick wished he knew more about its workings, but that couldn’t be helped now), or even vanish into the ground clutter at low altitude. They didn’t have to lose him for long, just long enough to make things harder for him, and even the possibility seemed to outweigh the danger of going low at night over unfamiliar terrain in a plane not built for that kind of flying.

Nick gripped his seat tightly as the dive pressed him back. He heard several bangs, which he instantly identified as gunshots from a heavy-caliber weapon, then a much louder bang to his right, which he didn’t recognize until wind started whipping through the cabin and the plane rocked as if it was caught in turbulence, really bad turbulence, as if it was going to shake itself to bits, while the emergency displays on the panels at the front of the deck all lit up.

* * *

“What’s the condition of the aircraft?” the controller demanded over Tymoshenko’s radio.

“It appears badly damaged, out of control, and losing altitude fast,” Tymoshenko answered. “Make another pass?”

“Negative. Hold your fire. Repeat, hold your fire.”

Why? Tymoshenko wondered.

“Track the aircraft for as long as you can, and then maintain a watch over the crash site. Another fighter is en route to relieve you. Wait until its arrival. If necessary, you will be directed to another airfield to land.”

Tymoshenko glanced at his fuel gauge but continued flying on, watching as the corporate jet dropped toward the carpet of treetops.

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