Guardians

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Chapter 42

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

As soon as the last bomb cleared the mortar tube the three members of the mortar team sprang into their van and raced away from the scene. They didn’t stay in it long, abandoning it for a prepositioned Lada Niva in which they planned to complete the trip to the Latvian border.

Jan wondered how the rest of the team was doing. Nick struck him as one who’d been in some tight spots and come out okay. To his surprise Emma had acquitted herself well in the infiltration of the base. The people who’d since joined them in-country all seemed to be professionals.

If everything went as planned – and they’d seen the plane taking off, as planned – then Nick’s people were already out of the country. As for himself and the two men traveling with him, he just hoped the disarray of the Russian security forces was as great as the rumors had it.

* * *

Watching Nick vanish into the trees Emma thought she must have been losing her mind. He had picked up the bomb that could wreck the world, and walked away, and she had let him, this man who was essentially a stranger to her. If she’d argued he would have said it was the right thing to do, that it was his responsibility as the team leader, and that going by himself he would travel all the more swiftly.

She didn’t buy all that, but there was nothing to be done about it now, and anyway there were more pressing matters. Emma gathered everyone together, told them how things stood. As the only one of the original three members of the team still with their party, she was next after the absent McNab in the chain of command, and the others accepted her lead.

She asked Dane about his and Rod’s injuries. He said first aid was enough for the time being, and assured her that he could walk, and that anyway, leaving a member of the party in a Russian ER was out of the question, even if they could get to one.

The next item on the agenda was getting together the gear they’d brought along “just in case,” the fake papers, the cash, the GPS receivers, the maps.

It seemed pathetically meager, now. Their coffee and power bars wouldn’t last them the whole trip; they’d need food. Maybe even more urgently, they needed a change of clothes, their blood-spattered jumpsuits hardly presentable; they’d have to grab some wherever they could.

Looking back from the equipment to the people she considered splitting up the group, but not for long. One reason was that she was the only one who had much Russian in the group. Another was the two wounded members of the group, who might be more of a liability if the group split up.

Instead they moved away from the crash together, finding their way to a narrow, two-lane road and moving along it, using the foliage to keep from view of the occasional passing car.

Back at the base they’d only had Stepanenkov’s personal resources to worry about, but they couldn’t assume that anymore.

“But Stepanenkov would also prefer to deal with this himself, if he can help it,” Nick had told her when the possibility of setbacks like this came up during their planning of the operation. “He won’t have a whole lot of time to make that decision, and there’s a good chance he’ll hold off until it’s too late.”

Emma dearly hoped so now, but even if they’d been wrong about that, even if he’d been quicker to get help, it was possible the authorities just didn’t have much to go on.

There was no reason to think the Russians had a clue as to what they were doing. The people who would be hunting them didn’t know their names, either their real ones or the ones on the documents they were traveling with, and probably didn’t know their descriptions either, or even how many of them there were. That was something.

But then she thought of the three people they had left behind at the crash scene, the Pinstriped Man especially. They would be able to report something about the people who’d taken over their plane, however sketchy or haphazard, if they got picked up by the Militia, or Stepanenkov’s people.

It was a race now, between her people, and the opposition, and fortunately it wasn’t long before they found their first opportunity to speed things along, in a hamlet not on their map. They found a number of cars there, which they proceeded to check out. The first two they came to were a Zhiguli sedan and a Nova, each with gas in the tank.

They proceeded to hot-wire them, successfully. Emma gave one of her road maps to Gus, who had some combat driving experience as well as his bit of Russian, and told him to take the wheel of the other car, and to try to keep her vehicle in sight without riding her bumper. She also told Mike and Greg to get in with him, and Gabe, Dane and Rod to ride with her.

That much figured out they headed north, trying to put as many kilometers between themselves and the village as they could before the cars were missed. The question now was what they’d do next. The most obvious thing was to keep driving until they got to the border, but given the scarcity of routes and the surveillance (and their complete lack of documentation attesting to their ownership of these cars) it actually seemed a better idea to stay off the major roads.

Fortunately they had other options. Emma’s map showed that Rzhev, on the Moscow-Riga train line, was just a short distance away. They had the money to buy tickets, and their fake passports and visas should have sufficed to get them past any checks. They just had to make sure they had that change of clothes, by then, and hope they didn’t have any more bad luck. If things didn’t go too badly, Emma thought, they’d be in Latvia before sunset.

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