Guardians

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Chapter 41

Ugransky Air Force Base

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

Captain Tymoshenko reported the crash of the Falcon just after the relief fighter went up. It carried no missiles or other loadings on its hard points, just the extra belly fuel tank, to keep it aloft longer.

“What’s the condition of the plane?” Stepanenkov asked. “Has it exploded? Caught fire?”

“No Comrade General, it has not,” Tymoshenko answered.

He hoped that meant he would walk onto the scene and find the device inside, all safe and sound.

At once he rode back to his office and summoned his people together for a meeting.

“I will be proceeding to the crash site personally,” he said to Lebedev. “You are now in charge of repair and clean-up operations.”

Lebedev immediately acknowledged his instructions, leaving Stepanenkov the problem of how he was supposed to get out to the scene. His first thought had been to take a helicopter, but his security force’s Mi-8 had been reduced to a smoking ruin on its pad, and he knew that getting another from his friends would take time – much more than the hour or two it would take to get to the wreck going overland. Besides, contacting them would mean widening the knowledge of the situation, which along with the delay put the prize in even greater danger.

He turned to Parolow.

“I need fifty men, along with as many trucks – sturdy off-road vehicles – as it will take to carry them. Plus one more, for whatever and whomever we find out there. Please see to it at once.”

Parolow turned around on his heel and walked straight out, eager to please after the fresh humiliation of his section’s failure in the face of the attack.

“Comrade General –” Lebedev began, clearly not liking the idea of stripping the base of fifty soldiers.

“As far as I am concerned, the battle here is over and our attackers have moved on. We will act accordingly.”

In five minutes Parolow had the convoy assembled and waiting in front of the headquarters building, with Parolow riding in the lead truck, a big, open-topped Gaz-69. Stepanenko and Pavel (both carrying rifles, instead of their usual Makarov side arms) boarded the vehicle, then sat back and let the drivers speed them to the scene.

Stepanenko stayed silent during the ride, occupied with his own, racing thoughts.

His orders to the men on the ground had been ambiguous, telling them nothing about when and how to use the meager force he was able to get into place before the Falcon took off. He wished he’d told them to destroy the plane rather than let it get off the ground.

He’d hesitated not only because he didn’t want to destroy his client’s very expensive property (or kill his representatives), but because of what he’d guessed about the “ellipton.” He’d thought it might be a nuclear weapon of some sort. He’d heard of devices scaled down to that size, and there were stories about “pure fusion” devices.

Stepanenkov had been assured that the ellipton was robust enough to survive any mishandling, but he didn’t feel he could take that claim at face value where a nuclear device was concerned. Even if the fail-safes all worked as intended to prevent a nuclear explosion, it seemed that at the least the very valuable cargo would be damaged beyond repair, or that an attack on the aircraft carrying it might scatter radioactive debris over western Russia.

He’d got away with a great deal, but he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to get away with that. After the plane was stolen, however, shooting it down seemed like the lesser evil.

All the same, the downing of the aircraft entailed its share of risks and problems, which Stepanenkov felt increasingly conscious of as the trucks went off-road to continue to the coordinates Tymoshenko gave them – and which others might also have known about. The MiG shot down the Falcon over an unpopulated area but even so Stepanenkov knew that the crash might have been seen and reported. The authorities might have already landed on the scene, taken it over, at which point he’d have a great deal of explaining to do.

For what it was worth, Lebedev didn’t have anything of the kind to report on the satellite phone. (During his one brief call his deputy only mentioned the discovery of the mortar outside the base’s perimeter, which was of interest but not of immediate use to him.) And traveling to the site he heard one of his MiGs circling overhead, and through the trees he made out a clearing – the impromptu landing strip the big Falcon made knocking down trees during its descent.

The trucks emerged from the trees, onto that strip of cleared ground, and trundled toward the wreck, the lead truck stopping closest. Stepanenkov jumped out first and ran over to the aircraft, getting his first look with his own eyes at the plane since its departure from his base.

He was vaguely aware of Parolow shouting orders, directing his squads to secure the surrounding area and enter the plane, AK-toting soldiers going through the hole in the side of the fuselage.

Stepanenkov waited for them to return. He dearly hoped that the device would be there. The client might not be entirely pleased by the terms of the transfer, but the goods would still be delivered nonetheless.

“Comrade General?” someone called from behind him.

The voice snapped him back to the present. “Any sign of the device?” he asked Parolow, his anxiety barely under control. “Or of the passengers?” he asked as an afterthought.

“There is no sign of the device,” Parolow said, which immediately left Stepanenkov with a sinking feeling. “We do have three survivors. Two of them identified themselves as the crew of the plane. The third calls himself ‘Mr. Pickford.’”

Not the people who’d taken the plane then, apparently long gone by now. The sinking feeling didn’t go away. All the same, it was possible they knew something useful.

“Show me to them at once,” he commanded, hiding his uncertainty about how to feel about their still being alive as best he could. Parolow nodded and led him away from the clearing.

The hair stood up on the back of Stepanenkov’s neck, as if he were walking into an ambush. Through the trees he made out the three men Parolow talked about, bedraggled, bloody, sitting on a fallen log. A medic attended to one of them, while another soldier cradling a rifle in his arms stood over them.

Closer up Stepanenkov saw one of them was indeed the man who’d picked up the ellipton, Pickford. The other two were dressed like airline pilots. One was about his age, hard-eyed and round-faced. The other was about fifteen years younger. Presumably the aircrew.

Stepanenkov hastily and gathered his thoughts as he approached them, got a pack of cigarettes out of his uniform pocket. “Smoke?” he offered the three men.

The copilot took one, the others ignoring him.

“You have a light?”

“Of course.” Stepanenkov lit it for him.

Thinking that it would have been less than diplomatic to address them from a standing position while his soldiers surrounded them brandishing weapons (he didn’t want them to feel like prisoners) it occurred to him to sit down also. Only after setting himself down on the log next to Pickford did he speak.

“Gentlemen,” he said in English, “please allow me to express my relief at seeing you all alive and uninjured, and to extend my sincerest apologies for what has befallen you.”

They did not appear impressed with his remarks.

“No thanks to you,” the old pilot said. “First you let this assault team just walk onto your base, and steal the plane – then you sent your fucking fighter plane to shoot us down.”

“My hands were tied. Your employers –”

“Enough about that,” Pickford said, silencing the pilot, who fell into line with some reluctance, clearly still boiling. “We’ve got a problem here, and it’s got to be fixed before we can think of anything else.”

Pickford turned to Stepanenkov, clearly suppressing his distaste for the man at that moment. “Do you have any idea who those people were?” he asked with a sense of purpose Stepanenkov hadn’t expected from the way he’d handled himself earlier.

“I was hoping you would be able to assist us with this,” Stepanenkov said. “You had much more direct contact with them than any of my people did.”

“They had no insignia on their clothing, nothing to identify their nationality,” Pickford said. “They didn’t say anything about who they might be.”

“Their weapons were Russian, I’ll tell you that,” the old pilot offered. “But they sounded American, most of them anyway. One of them sounded British – and I don’t think she was faking.”

“She?” Stepanenkov asked.

“Yes, one of them was a woman.”

“I see,” Stepanenkov said, sure he wasn’t seeing at all. That some of the people who had hijacked the plane may have been American and British proved absolutely nothing. After all, the men standing in front of him were themselves British.

However, it struck him as interesting that they used Russian weapons but spoke English and wore anonymous jumpsuits. Perhaps they had hoped to pin the attack on a Russian unit, but it seemed equally likely that the choice of weapons was dictated by convenience, purchasing them inside the country simpler or cheaper than smuggling them in, awash in guns as it was. And anyway, Western special forces were trained in the use of Warsaw Pact weaponry.

Still, he didn’t think the Navy SEALs or the British Special Air Service or any other such group was behind this, and that they had a woman with them only made it seem more unlikely. Stepanenkov had heard stories about female Spetsnaz units a few years earlier, but it seemed to have originated in Western propaganda, about Soviet special forces infiltrating protests around American missile bases in Britain. He hadn’t heard anything else about such units, and he hadn’t heard about any Western special forces using women operatives either.

Mercenaries, then? Perhaps. But who were they working for?

He’d have to ask them when he found them.

“Did they come through the crash as well as you did?” he asked.

“Some of them were killed,” the pilot said. “Three, maybe four of them. Others were wounded too, can’t say how many for sure.”

The copilot nodded, holding the cigarette in his hand.

Since there seemed to have been eleven people involved in the assault on the plane, that meant seven or eight of them were probably out there. He couldn’t know about their mobility, but unless they abandoned their injured the wounded would slow them down. And they were still about four hundred kilometers away from the Latvian border.

That meant they were probably still in the country, would be for several hours at least. It wasn’t much, but still something.

Stepanenkov insisted on taking the crash’s survivors back to the base.

“You will be given accommodations and made comfortable,” he promised. “I will also see that you are put in touch with your people as soon as possible, and that appropriate transport is arranged. And have no fear, the deal remains on track.”

Since the alternative was staying in those woods they naturally went with him, in his own truck, but they weren’t very talkative, leaving him to his thoughts. His initial hope of catching the Falcon’s hijackers before they left the country faded as he considered the problem more deeply. Some of his people were Spetsnaz, but his security detail simply didn’t have the manpower or the equipment to conduct an independent manhunt, certainly not over so wide an area. He would need help; what remained was to arrange it properly.

Stepanenkov wished he’d told his pilot to empty his cannon’s drum into the Falcon so that nothing but corpses and charred wreckage touched the ground. The thought was useless now, but it lingered all the same, and it was still on his mind as he continued turning the issue over in his mind.

He was still doing this when the column approached the base. He didn’t see any smoke, which he took to mean that Lebedev had put out the fires. Even so, he knew the damage to the facilities, stock and aircraft, including the outright destruction of a MiG-29 and a Mi-8 helicopter, would likely come to a hundred million dollars or more. And of course he would have to compensate his buyers for the loss of the Falcon, which would mean still more millions. He didn’t know how he would come up with the money. But he tried not to think about it, to focus on his bigger, more immediate problem . . .

They turned onto the exit leading to the base. The sound of a helicopter’s blades cutting the air above them drew his attention.

The helicopter looked like a Mi-8, but he knew the base’s chopper was a complete loss.

He kept on watching the helicopter as it passed over the convoy and corrected himself: it wasn’t a Mi-8, but a Mi-24, the gunship derived from the Mi-8′s airframe.

The helicopter was flying quite low now, and it sped ahead of the convoy, headed in toward the base.

Its arrival was a surprise, and Stepanenkov didn’t expect a surprise to mean anything good for him now.

They drove onto the base, headed toward the headquarters building, where they found the Mi-24 parked in front of it. Standing alongside it were seven soldiers, all carrying their rifles as if they were ready to use them.

He thought about ordering his men to approach the helicopter with their guns drawn – they outnumbered the little party – but he immediately dismissed the idea. Even if it gave him a bad feeling, he still didn’t know what all this was about, and he didn’t want to get into any more trouble than he already was.

“Comrade Major, bring your men with me,” Stepanenkov instructed him. Parolow nodded and led a dozen soldiers out of the truck after him.

Walking from the truck to the building Stepanenkov could feel their eyes on him, but none of them said anything, or made a move toward him.

He found Boris lurking right inside the door of the building, looking anxious.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Stepanenkov asked, stopping to listen to his explanation with his escorts gathered around him.

“We’ve got a visitor,” Boris said. “No call beforehand, just showed up in his helicopter a few minutes ago.”

The helicopter he’d seen while he was driving in, which had probably seen him as well. “Who is he?”

“He identified himself as Comrade Colonel Zuyev of Military Intelligence. He was no more specific than that, and it may be relevant that I didn’t recognize all his insignia.”

“Where is he now?”

“In your office,” Lebedev said. “He insisted on waiting there.”

“Which office?” He thought of the records in his computer.

“The official one.”

That wasn’t as much of a relief as he’d hoped.

“He hasn’t said what it is he wants, but he made it clear that he expects you to see him immediately,” Lebedev told him.

Stepanenkov chewed on his lip. “Very well,” he said, proceeding to his office with his escort in tow. He paused at the threshold, took a deep breath, and nerved himself up to take the last step, opening the door.

When he did it he saw that someone was sitting behind his desk, in his chair, and just now turning to face him, a broad smile on his face.

“How dare you barge in here, as if you have the run of the place?” Stepanenkov demanded, hoping his outrage would carry weight.

To go by the look on the man’s face, it didn’t. That was a very discomfiting smile he had, the satisfied smile of a man who’d already settled things his way, and was only here to inform him of the fact.

“Tell your men to go,” the man in his chair said. “You don’t want them hearing this.”

Stepanenkov thought about killing the man, decided against it. It would probably make matters worse, as there was almost certainly someone very powerful behind him.

He looked at Parolow and Drykin, nodded. They went on their way, along with his escort, leaving the two men alone in the room.

“All right now, who the hell are you, and what are you doing here in my office?” he asked.

“As I told your deputy and he no doubt told you, I am Colonel Arkady Zuyev of Military Intelligence, which is more than you are entitled to know.

“What you will know, regardless of whether you want to or not, is that while you would ordinarily outrank me as a General, your lawful authority has been effectively suspended. I have been placed in charge of this base for all practical purposes.”

Stepanenkov wondered how to react to that, if it may have just been a bluff, this colonel with his flair for the dramatic pretending to more authority than he really had. After all, he didn’t seem overeager to show him any documents proving a single thing he had said. Besides, if the GRU were taking the base over, wouldn’t it have sent a rather larger force than could be carried in a single helicopter?

Nonetheless, Stepanenkov thought it may have been best not to confront him about those things just yet, to wait and see where he was going with all this. But he still had to say something.

“I demand to know the reason,” Stepanenkov said.

“The reason is that you are nothing but another filthy little pimp selling off the Motherland’s heritage. Only one of far too many, and not the biggest of them by far, which is something you would do well to remember.

“Yes, General Stepanenkov, you do have powerful friends. But they are your friends only for so long as you are useful to them, which may not be for much longer given the mismanagement of their affairs I have seen on my way in. And even they cannot protect you given what you have done now, the magnitude of your criminality, which is what has brought you in front of me.”

Stepanenkov felt sick to his stomach. So the metal box was a nuclear weapon after all.

“You are afraid,” Stepanenkov’s visitor said. “Which means that you do know what it was you were doing, after all?”

“I – I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stepanenkov said, knowing how lame his denial sounded.

“Then I will spell it out for you, so that you can give up the unconvincing routine.”

Zuyev told him about the ellipton.

To his own surprise, Stepanenkov started laughing.

“That’s ludicrous,” he said. “You’re having fun at my expense.”

“I assure you, I’m not. But even if there is some doubt left in you, if you thought you were in fact doing something else, consider the gravity of your situation if what I am telling you is in fact true.”

Something about the way he had said that made it impossible for Stepanenkov to not believe him, and all the mirth vanished from the room.

“Right now, Andrei Ivanovich,” Zuyev went on, “our armed forces are in a state of collapse, and the truth is that even our nuclear deterrent cannot remain reliable for very long without maintenance. In the absence of that deterrent, this weapon is the great guarantee of our national survival. And should we fail to recover it, I will see to it that you, Andrei Ivanovich Stepanenkov, pay the full price for the loss.

“Your only option if you want to survive this transgression is to cooperate completely with me. That means you are going to do absolutely everything in your power to help me get this particular piece of state property back.

“We begin with the issue of who exactly has it now.”

Shamefacedly, sitting in a chair normally used for his guests in the office while Zuyev sat in his, Stepanenkov told the man his story. The deal, the arrival of the Falcon, the attack that came entirely out of nowhere, the crisis as it had unfolded from that moment, up to his rescue of Mr. Pickford and the two aircrew.

“You don’t know who is responsible, then?”

“No.”

“And the men you picked up, they don’t know either?”

“That is what they said.”

Zuyev smiled cynically. “I doubt that. In fact, I would like to speak to them myself.”

Stepanenkov hesitated. “I will arrange it.”

“Don’t trouble yourself. I will have them brought here. This room will be quite sufficient for the interviews.”

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