Guardians

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Chapter 40

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

Mike fought to stabilize the aircraft, but didn’t win, and now they were coming down through the trees. The plane had its landing gear down by then, though, creating just enough drag to slow it to something closer to a safe landing speed.

Nick tensed reflexively, half-expecting everything to go black as the plane started shearing the tops of snow-dusted birch trees, but then he saw that those trees were up all around them, the world outside their windshield vanished in blown-about leaves and splintering wood and the boughs smacking against the body of the aircraft. They touched the ground after that, he was sure of it, but then he was jarred to his teeth by the sensation of the plane hitting the ground again, and then there was the debris piling up in front of them, the mounting dirt and wood and snow eating into their momentum as they made their own runway in the middle of the forest –

* * *

They’d all seen the MiG from their windows, shadowing them – a MiG-29 just like those Stepanenkov had at his base. The tension in the cabin was palpable, but no one said anything; it was all up to Nick and Mike now. Maybe they could talk their way out of it, do something, Emma couldn’t think of what.

Then Nick came out and yelled for everyone to hang on, and then she felt the plane go into a sharp dive. That was harrowing enough, but then she heard a giant machine gun tear through them and then Bob’s head exploded and behind him, on the other side of the cabin, a window suddenly became a hole, a hole that quickly got bigger and bigger and then she thought she saw a body go flying out through it, sucked out by wind like she’d never felt before in life.

For one dreadful moment she pictured that wind tearing their plane apart in mid-air, and then she wasn’t picturing anything, as if her mind had just stopped working. The next thing she knew there were trees all around them (where the hell did they come from?) and it was as if the forest itself was trying to rip its way into the plane.

And then the whole world stopped.

She stood up, leaves and broken wood and snow crunching under the soles of her boots, and then was relieved that she could stand.

“What the hell do we do now?” Gabe asked.

“We get out and walk,” she said.

* * *

After they came to a stop Nick tested his limbs. Nothing seemed broken.

“Everybody all right?” he asked as he unfastened his straps.

“I’m okay,” said Mike as he did the same.

“Everybody out,” he ordered. For all any of them knew the plane could explode any second. Leaving Mike and the copilot to their own devices he went into the passenger cabin to check things out. He saw that his teammates were already evacuating through the open door positioned near to the ground by their landing, though the huge tear in the side of the plane (worse than he’d feared it was) would have served just as well.

What was left of the cabin was spattered arterial red.

Fuck.

He clambered down to the ground through the tear, saw Dane talking Greg through the process of bandaging his leg, Rod tending to his right arm, Emma (her jumpsuit covered in blood) talking to Gabe.

“Where’s Bob?” Nick asked. “Bill? Kurt?”

Gabe shook his head.

Fuck.

Nick looked at the wreck, saw that the wing on this side of the plane was largely gone – probably shot away by cannon fire from the look of it.

It seemed that most of the damage, material and human, was from the MiG’s strafing and not Mike’s flying, which was a credit to his performance. Good enough to save them more death and injury than they’d had, though it wasn’t clear that it had been good enough to save the mission.

“The ellipton?” he asked.

“It’s secure,” Emma said. “And intact. Outwardly, anyway.” She motioned with her head toward Gus, who was lugging the prize, which Nick had half-expected to hear was blown out of the plane.

“What do we do about the prisoners?” Emma asked.

“Forget them,” Nick answered her, looking at the leaking kerosene puddling around the broken airframe, black against a patch of white. “They’re not the ones Stepanenkov’s after, we are, and we can’t afford the extra burden. Anyway, I don’t think they know all that much.”

Emma assented with a nod. She hadn’t had any more luck with the Pinstriped Man than Kurt had had with the pilot.

The sound of a jet swooping low overhead made them both look up. The MiG was still out there. Its pilot wouldn’t be able to see very much of what a few people on the ground did in the middle of the forest at night, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still a threat.

“We should probably split up,” Nick said. “It’d give them more targets to chase, divide their attention.” Keeping it away from the ellipton, he didn’t need to add.

His first thought was to suggest three groups, but they were already down to eight people, and two of them were injured. So Nick walked over to Gus and picked up the ellipton, looked it over. Its smoothness seemed astounding, like it had been cast in a single piece. It didn’t seem hollow, but at the same time it was very light for its size.

“I’ll go with the case, move fastest that way,” he said to Emma. “You can work out the rest.”

Emma looked like she was going to say something, but she didn’t, just nodded. He nodded back. “I’ll see you all when you get over the border.”

Then he disappeared into the trees.

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