Guardians

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Chapter 45

Pskov Oblast, R.F.

Near the Estonian Border

Nick halted again, let the soldier walk past his resting place.

There was no escape in that direction either. The realization only confirmed what he’d already guessed, that the Russians knew he was here; and that they were boxing him in, then filling that box with troops to catch him. They seemed to be drawing on the air assault division he knew was based in Pskov. (He recognized the patches on their uniforms and the personal equipment they were using.)

They’d succeed, too, unless he found a way out of the box very quickly, something much easier said than done, especially with the big box he could not possibly abandon, and his injury. As far as he could tell the bullet hadn’t broken any bones on its way through his thigh, but it had made a hell of a mess, as the bright red color of his blood showed.

Still, even if his leg wasn’t as responsive as he would have liked, he was still able to walk – for now. He’d stabbed himself in the thigh with a morphine-filled syrette from the first aid kit in his duffel, then as the drug went to work on his nervous system, bandaged the wound as best he could, keeping pressure on the thigh when he could to minimize blood loss.

When the soldier moved on, so did Nick, in a southerly direction, hoping to give the air assault troops the slip that way. A loud noise nearby made him drop down to the forest floor. From his prone position he peered over a rise in the ground at a BMP infantry fighting vehicle trundling in his direction.

No, it wasn’t a BMP. It was too small, its silhouette too low. He also remembered that Soviet paratroopers didn’t use them. It was probably a BMD, the more compact version of the vehicle designed to fit inside transports and to be air-dropped along with air assault troops.

Nick continued to watch as it came to a halt in a wide gap between the trees, trying to gauge the size of its gun. That couldn’t possibly have been a seventy-three millimeter barrel, so he guessed it was the smaller, thirty-millimeter gun, making it a BMD-2.

A few seconds later he saw soldiers coming out of the roof hatch behind the turret. He counted them up, eight fully-equipped infantrymen eventually exiting. They didn’t head in his direction as he had initially feared they would, so he guessed their deployment there was simply part of the systematic conduct of the search.

That eight men left meant only the crew remained, the driver in front, the gunner in the little turret if he remembered the vehicle’s configuration correctly.

Nick thought again of his injury, the number of men and the sheer thickness of these woods with soldiers, and the big box he was lugging. And how much easier it would be to get through them and cross the border if he had an armored vehicle to ride in.

It wouldn’t be easy to take the BMD away from its two crewmen. But it didn’t seem impossible. Since they were both inside, their view of their surroundings wouldn’t be great. They probably weren’t carrying anything heavier than a pistol. And because of the internal division of the vehicle, they probably wouldn’t be able to face him together; he could try and pick them off one at a time.

Nick started moving toward the vehicle, maneuvering toward its side (gambling that the crew, sitting inside the vehicle and seeing only through their periscopes, would have even poorer vision to their sides than to their front). Carefully avoiding a pair of soldiers who passed nearby, he got as close as he could to the BMD’s side before he broke out through the tree line, his submachine gun up at his shoulder.

When he reached the vehicle he scrambled up its side. The gunner’s forward-facing hatch flung open, the crewman inside bringing out a gun to fire at him. Nick got him with a burst of submachine gun fire just as he fired a wild shot.

The gunner fell out of his hatch and Nick shoved him aside, off the vehicle as the driver now opened his hatch. Nick was on him before he could fire his own weapon, the collision of their bodies slamming the driver hard against his hatch cover. The driver went limp, then dropped back down into the hull.

Much more aware of his straggling now after climbing on top of the BMD (he knew he’d probably worsened the injury), Nick slipped down through the same hatch. He shoved the driver out of the seat to maneuver his own body into it, the stench of blood and powder and oil and metal heavy in his nostrils.

Now that Nick looked at the driver’s controls, he found them suddenly opaque. He didn’t actually know how to drive one of these things, just had a vague idea of how vehicles like this generally worked. In desperation he guessed and groped his way about the controls. For a terrible moment he thought that he’d just made things worse for himself, trapping himself inside one of the vehicles belonging to the people looking for him now, but then he heard a big diesel firing up beside him. A few moments later he felt the vehicle lurch forward.

He didn’t have to do much more than keep the BMD moving in the northward direction in which it was already pointing to get it over the border, after which things would get simpler. And he didn’t think he’d have to keep this up for very long. He figured that he was at most a few kilometers south of Estonian territory, perhaps less, when the air assault troops had started hemming him in. The BMD could cover that in about four minutes on the road at maximum speed, eight minutes off road in favorable country, and maybe a bit longer than that going up and down these hills.

Still, he was covering ground a lot faster than he would have on foot, especially in his condition, and the same woods that slowed him down also made it more difficult for his pursuers to see him clearly. He was also hopeful the crew hadn’t reported his attack before he took over their vehicle. Someone had probably overheard the gunfight, but they probably didn’t know what was going on, and it may have been a while before they did –

Nick heard a hail of bullets slam into the vehicle, pinging off the hull. Rifle fire. The BMD’s hull was proof against small arms, so he didn’t worry much about it, and the barrage didn’t last. However, he did see a small Uaz truck straight ahead, a pair of men inside it. They were shouting something he couldn’t hear. One of them tried firing a rifle at him (he was only sure the man got any bullets off because of the muzzle flash) before scrambling out and running away from the truck as the BMD rolled right over it, crushing it under its tracks.

They’d seen him, no doubt reported him, but there wasn’t anyone else close by because he didn’t hear any more shots coming his way. Ensconced in the BMD’s boxy aluminum hull, seeing the snow-covered world through periscopes, Nick felt like a submariner navigating a white alien sea.

Minutes passed before an explosion audible over the roar of his engine snapped him out of the illusion. He didn’t feel it, though, and the BMD didn’t stop. It must have been a near-miss, but it still meant they were shooting at him with something a lot heavier than a rifle.

He meant to stay in the BMD as long as he could before getting out, maximize his chance of being over the border when it happened.

There was another blast, and another, a succession of them, after which he wasn’t moving anymore. The engine still roared beside him, so he guessed something else had gone wrong.

Maybe a blast had knocked off a track. That wasn’t something he could fix, which meant he was stuck.

He threw open his hatch, poked his head out of it (remembering his leg in the process). He didn’t see any smoke rising from his vehicle, but he did see a helicopter hovering overhead, through the treetops. It was facing his way, huge, ugly, insectoid, with cannon and rocket pods protruding from under its wing stubs – a Mi-24 Hind, which in addition to its weapons may have been carrying a complement of troops.

Nick remembered watching Soviet Hinds come his way in the Carpathian Mountains. He also remembered the gun the BMD-2 carried. He got out of the hatch, suddenly aware of his leg again (it couldn’t be helped), got in the turret and maneuvered into the gunner’s seat. He turned the turret around in the direction he’d last seen the helicopter coming from, saw with satisfaction that it still worked, and hurriedly tried to get a feel for the controls on the weapon, which seemed more intuitive to him than the steering controls.

Nick started by raising the gun to its maximum elevation, seventy-five degrees. Even close to vertical he just barely got the helicopter in his sight. Nick then depressed the button on the laser range finder and saw the read-out in his scope – 58 METERS, nearly point-blank range – and pulled the trigger.

The cannon started drawing on its two ammo belts, spitting out its big rounds. Through his sight he watched the Hind jink, then go up in a red and black fireball before dropping, dropping, dropping down into the treetops. Nick was sure he felt it hit the ground before he flung himself out the hatch a final time, rolled off the BMD to land on his better leg and straggle off and away from the vehicle and the woods set aflame by the burning helicopter.

Again, he was straggling through the woods, in the direction he thought was north – not so sure of his direction anymore, the pain shooting through his thigh, his head feeling like it was stuffed with cotton, each step harder than the last.

Eventually the effort it took to force himself another step forward became overwhelming, and Nick finally gave up, letting himself drop down behind a tree. He didn’t know if he’d made it out of Russia for sure, but still he reached into his duffel, got out the satellite phone in his left hand and the GPS receiver in his right. He hit the speed-dial on the sat phone with his left thumb, while with his right he depressed the button getting a reading for the receiver.

Back at Argus, a woman answered. Nick read the numbers he saw on the receiver, registering so dimly he was barely aware of them, and then saw everything go black.

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