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Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Low Earth Orbit; Moscow
“Umarov,” he growled into the phone, half out of breath. He’d just got back from the ‘unscheduled field exercises’ and was halfway through his own version of cardio when the phone rang. The phone. The one under a glass dome with the flashing light, the one he’d had installed specifically for a single man.
“General, Mike Jenkins. Did I interrupt something?” There was a knowing tone in the American’s voice.
As if on cue, his secretary popped her head above the desk, looking at him curiously. He shook his head in negation and sighed. Later, he mouthed. With a pout, she stood and walked toward his private quarters, the perfect image of a general’s secretary from the waist up, bare from the waist down.
“Ah, Kildar! Just a little, ah, exercise. You understand, of course.” He paused at hearing Mike’s chuckle. With a more business-like tone he continued. “I thought you might want to know. It seems there were some Chechens on the wrong side of the border near your area. We secured them without too much bloodshed on our part.”
“Really? I’m shocked, General, simply shocked!”
“Yes, truly surprising,” Umarov said wryly. “But to what do I owe this call? Certainly not to hear about our border security?”
“No, General, though that is good news. I was wondering if you were using the Backfire?”
“Backfire? What Backfire?” Umarov’s voice was carefully neutral.
“The Backfire your fighters forced down during the little unpleasantness with the Russians last year. Specifically, a Tu-22-M3-R ELINT that was forced down at Oh Eight Forty-Seven hours on 10 August and is currently on the ground in Marneuli.”
“I won’t ask how you know about this.”
“Probably wise,” agreed Mike.
Umarov sighed. If only his own intelligence agency was half as efficient!
“The answer is no, we aren’t using the Backfire. We don’t have any pilots currently certified to fly it, for one thing.” Umarov didn’t mention they still held the Russian pilot, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the project, and Mike politely failed to bring the subject up.
“Is it damaged?”
“No, it isn’t. Why the interest in a former Russian bomber?”
“I need fast transport,” said Mike, honestly. “And it was suggested the Backfire might fit my needs.”
“Fast transport? For how many?”
“Around twenty, maybe twenty-four people and their gear. Plus a flight crew.”
Mike could almost hear Umarov thinking, calculating.
“There is plenty of space in the fuselage now,” he said. “It would need some work done, though.”
Mike grimaced. “Let me guess. All the ELINT gear?”
“Exactly. It is much advanced over our own equipment, so we removed it for further study.”
“They didn’t damage the airframe, did they?”
“Oh, no! The technicians who did the work were most careful. We had hope to use the bird ourselves later.”
“Cards on the table time. I intend to buy this; I think I’m going to need it on a more-or-less permanent basis. Plus this will put you a step removed from any, well, let’s say ‘repercussions’ and keep it at that.”
Umarov laughed. “I know you have very much money, Mr. Jenkins, but I doubt even you could afford this!”
“Oh, I don’t intend to pay for it,” answered Mike easily. “Let me explain…”
Ten minutes later they had worked out the framework of an agreement. Umarov felt confident he could find experienced pilots willing to ferry the Backfire to Tbilisi, where the interior would be refurbished and refitted as quickly as possible. Mike promised he’d have Vanner and a team of Keldara at the airport soon but asked for local security to provide a five-hundred-meter perimeter at all times.
It would be somewhat more comfortable than your run-of-the-mill military transport, but not nearly as posh as a Gulfstream or its ilk. Officially, title would vest with Mike, pending various concessions from the States. One of the conditions was Mike would ensure it was available for use by Umarov and other members of the government.
“It’s not every country that has a Mach-capable transport,” Umarov had said, pleased.
“When will it be in Tbilisi? I want my Intel guy there to help with the installation and add his touches.”
And to sweep it for any bugs that might have found their way aboard, he didn’t add. Forcing the pace of the deal would limit the time Umarov’s men had to install such gadgets too.
“Will tomorrow morning be soon enough?”
“Might be pushing it. Speed, as you may have guessed, is of the essence.”
“I will try for tonight.”
“Thank you, General. I look forward to a fruitful partnership,” said Mike, grimacing. He could imagine the uses the Backfire was going to have, especially if Umarov was involved. Mile High Club, Georgian Branch?
“Chatham Aviation, Gloria speaking.”
“Hello, Gloria, Mike Jenkins.”
“Hello, Mike, is there a problem?”
“No, no, Gloria. Everything has been splendid, as always. Sorry about the wear on the 550.”
“We understand. The repairs will be included in the bill, as usual. How can I help you today?”
“I have a rather delicate question for you, Gloria. Regarding Captain Hardesty.”
“Yes?” she said, her tone curious and cautious at the same time. Mike‘s requests and flights with this particular pilot were legendary around Chatham’s offices.
“Would he be available for a short-term assignment? In a non-Chatham aircraft?” Mike tried to sound as neutral as possible.
“As a rule, we don’t allow our pilots to fly aircraft that we don’t maintain ourselves,” began Gloria. “Insurance, and all that.”
“I understand,” said Mike, resigned to calling Pierson again and begging for pilots, which meant he’d owe a favor which he was loathe to do.
“I guess I’ll –”
“In John’s case, and if you’re the one doing the hiring?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then I think I’d leave it up to him. I don’t think I want to know too much, do I?” She sounded like she wanted to ask more but would wait for the final reports, and for the checks to clear.
“I seem to be saying this a bunch: probably not.”
“Then good luck convincing him. I would start by apologizing for the G550; he rather thinks of her as his baby. Good day, Mike.”
He looked down at his co-pilot, sleeping, and decided not to kick him awake. Yet. Best if he got all the sleep he could. He’d never flown for Mike Whatever-His-Name-Really-Was before, and the high-speed Transatlantic crossing had taken it out of him.
Or he’d find himself a new co.
“John, Mike. I have a proposition for you.” Speak of the devil.
“Yes?” The veteran pilot’s tones were wary.
“When was the last time you flew a Mach-capable plane?”
“A mate of mine who’s still in the RAF flies Typhoons. He let me backseat with him in a trainer, oh, six months ago. Why?”
“How would you like to fly a Backfire?”
Mike could practically hear the former fighter pilot drool.
“A Backfire? When? Where?” He’d be buggered if he gave this up!
“When is as soon as it’s refitted. Where? Let me ask, where are you?”
“Still in Tbilisi. I wanted to give the 550 a thorough once-over after our speed run. Seems there are a number of issues caused by extended high-speed flight.” His voice was coldly professional.
“I’d heard. Look, I’m sorry about the damage, I already told Gloria I’d take care of it. About the Backfire. You ought to see it arrive; I’ve been told it will be there sometime the next few hours.” He paused. “So. Are you interested in flying it?”
“Bloody hell yes!”
“Good. Take some leave from Chatham; I’ve already talked with Gloria. For the duration, flying the Backfire, I’ll be paying your salary. Whatever you get is doubled. Think you can manage?”
“I‘ll make do,” said Hardesty dryly. Then he remembered what else had happened when he flew Mike around and wondered about the wisdom of his decision.
“Okay. As soon as the Backfire arrives, I want you over there to oversee and familiarize. In the meantime, find any tech manuals you can and start reading. I’m working on getting you a co with some hours in the airframe, but no guarantees. Any questions?”
“Just one. Are things going to be getting wild and wooly again?”
“This time? Probably.”
“I was afraid there was a catch.”
It was actually a straightforward bit of programming, reflected Vanner.
The profile of the missing nuke had finally arrived. Once he had it in his hands, all he needed to do was plug the specifics into the code he’d already written. He knew that the base program would work; he’d stolen, err, borrowed, it from the NRO’s files for other searches.
Uploading it back to Chechnik took a little longer.
“Colonel, the Amis have sent us their program,” said his surviving aide, Lieutenant Sankovsky.
“You know what to do?”
“Then what are you waiting for? Permission?” Chechnik’s tone was biting. He couldn’t take his frustrations out on the Kildar. He certainly couldn’t take them out on Putin, who had put him in this untenable position in the first place. That just left his aide. Fortunately, one of an aide’s roles is to be abused.
“No, Colonel. Working on it, Colonel.” The lieutenant’s fingers fairly flew over the keyboard.
A veritable constellation of satellites turned their ‘eyes’ to Moscow. Russian and American ‘national technical means’, reporting to the FSS, NRO, and CIA all peered downward.
Other missions joined in, though not all of their controllers were aware.
Konos-Wind, a NASA project studying the solar wind, turned two gamma ray spectrometers Earthward.
INTEGRAL, despite its extremely eccentric orbit, was ordered by the ESA to join the search. A three-day orbit had benefits, such as much longer scan periods; and drawbacks, like the Earth turning underneath.
Even AGILE, an Italian spacecraft, was added to the search.
Of course, even the most sensitive gamma radiation detector can only report what it ‘sees’.
One of the few materials which blocks gamma rays effectively is lead. Lead, which for centuries had been used as a roofing material. Which was, and still is, widely used on concrete roofs.
Like the one on the warehouse Gereshk had chosen to hide in.
Putin was absolutely livid, and the staff did their best to get out of his way as he stormed through Chechnik‘s office. Chechnik looked at him as he ranted and, despite the ominous nature of the visit, found his mind wandering to descriptions of his boss.
Livid didn’t really fit, it was much too mild. Incandescent? Closer, perhaps. Volcanic? Better still. Ready to stroke out? Bozhe moi, Dear God, please! It didn‘t seem that God was listening.
“Who authorized you to allow American spy satellites to peer into Moscow, you fucking kulak!?!” he had screamed.
“You did, Prime Minister,” Chechnik replied as coolly as possible. “As part of the effort to track –”
“I don’t care if God told you to do it!” bellowed Putin. “You need to ask me beforehand on issues of national security!”
Like losing a double dozen nuclear warheads and trying to get them back? Chechnik thought.
Aloud, he said, “Yes, Prime Minister.”
“And how do we know if they are telling the truth? They say the feed is going to Galitsino-2, but what proof have we?”
“We are receiving data there, sir, directly from the satellites in question.”
“Fool. And they cannot transmit to another location simultaneously?”
“Actually, sir, no. Their satellites mount unidirectional antennas, specifically to control the data stream.”
He tapped a highly redacted report from a mole in the CIA, a copy which he could permit Putin to see without worrying about his source being burnt, or, worse still, traded to the Americans for some concession or another.
“And they cannot record their observations and transmit them to their own ground control later?” So. Someone had been briefing him on technology again.
“I do not know, Minister,” admitted Chechnik. “It is an oversight, I admit.”
“An oversight?” The spittle flew from Putin’s lips, veins throbbing.
“If they get wind of our entirely proper, though foolishly banned, nuclear-tipped Opekun Anti-Missile system, you’ll have caused me. No, the President,” he corrected hastily, “Great embarrassment and difficulty!”
He paused for emphasis. “In attempting to enhance the security of the Rodina, Colonel, you may have done great damage to it!”
“Prime Minister, I apologize for any difficulties which may arise, but I felt the threat of a five-megaton bomb actually in Moscow outweighed any longer-term repercussions.”
“Perhaps,” conceded Putin. “But why the fucking Keldara? And that miserable mercenary AmericanWhy didn’t the Guards take them out?”
The PM’s fist hammered down on a framed photograph of Chechnik’s family, cracking the frame and shattering the glass. It took considerable willpower for Chechnik to ignore the assault and still appear as cowed and broken as Putin believed him to be.
“The 5th Motor Rifle Division! Why didn’t they engage and destroy the Keldara while they were on Russian territory?”
Putin smashed the photo to the ground. Even though Chechnik didn’t have much of a relationship with his family any longer, it still pissed him off. Gathering his self-control, he answered as meekly as he could.
“You ordered them not to, sir.”
“I did no such thing!” Putin exploded. “I remember giving you the order, that the 5th was to wipe out, eliminate, every enemy of the state, foreign or domestic! So do not stand there and lie to me, you osel!”
“Mr. Minister! You said they were to execute that order when, and I quote you, sir, ‘if the Keldara call for support.’ Sir, they never called for support. They went in, performed the mission, and withdrew. Our men were left sitting, waiting for a call which never came. By the time we knew they were in place, they were already moving out.”
“I don’t want excuses, Colonel! I want results, and I want the Kildar dead!”
“Perhaps, Mr. Minister, you should be talking to the Thirteenth Department of the First Chief Directorate of the FSB?” Department 13 dealt with assassinations.
Putin turned, if possible, a brighter red.
“Out of my office!”
That was one order Chechnik was eager to execute even if it was technically his office. It wouldn‘t do to point it out. Putin could search all he wanted; there was nothing incriminating left.
Bangkok was looking better and better.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Watson, USAF, had flown the hottest planes on the planet in his capacity as a test pilot. From the F-117 Night Hawk to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, he’d flown them all and flown them first. His experience and competence had made him the logical choice to be the Air Force’s ‘point man’ when examining samples of foreign aircraft that fell into American hands.
He’d logged time in all the major Soviet fighters through the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi-27 Flanker. He’d flown the Tu-16 Badger (old and slow, but surprisingly durable); the Tu-22 Blinder (fast as blazes but short legs); and the Tu-22M Backfire (solid range but tricky to handle). He wanted to fly the Tu-160 Blackjack, the world’s largest and fastest supersonic combat aircraft, and had finally finagled an invitation from the Russians to come over and participate in a joint exercise.
That’s why he was pissed now. He hated frago’s!
Some Pentagon weenie from an office he’d never heard of had issued the frag orders, dispatching him to Tbilisi, of all places. He was to make himself ‘available’ to something called a Kildar for an unspecified length of time for ‘non-Air-Force-related duties’. Probably ferrying some crappy third world politico around in an old Gulfstream or Learjet.
He hated babysitting VIPs, especially pissants like this one probably would be. At least he was TDY so he’d come out of this with a little extra cash in his pocket. And, he reflected, stick time was stick time, even if it was a C-21 or some such.
His musings were cut off as the captain of the Airzena Boeing 737-500 announced their arrival. Tbilisi. What did he do to end up in this armpit?
The passenger jet taxied towards the terminal, and it was probably too much to hope they would have jet ways, it was raining and it looked fucking cold! Then he noticed something odd. Was that a…?
Holy fuck! What was a Backfire doing in Tbilisi?
Peering out the window, he hardly noticed the plane stop at the end of its taxi. He didn’t notice he was the final passenger on the jet until the steward came over and politely, he had to admit, but firmly informed him it was time to disembark. Abashed, he gathered up his carry-ons and exited, pausing at the top of the mobile stairway. Something was going on over there, even though it was hard to see exactly what.
“What time is it?” he asked the still-patient steward.
“Ten twenty,” he replied.
His body was telling him it was maybe seven in the morning. Jet lag sucked. But it was late, there were dozens of people crawling all over the Backfire, and he could see a line of trucks backed up a hundred yards.
He reclaimed his duffel from the ancient luggage carousel, squeaking and rattling like it hadn‘t been maintained properly since the Soviets were kicked out. Then he stood in the terminal, lost, until a short and stocky man with brown hair, wearing a peculiarly-patterned military camouflage uniform, approached. He noted a flash badge on the shoulder of a roaring tiger. The only other decoration on the uniform was a name: Vanner.
“Yes?” Thank God, an American!
“Chief Warrant Officer Pat Vanner, of the Georgian Mountain Tigers Militia.” He held out his hand, and Watson shook it. “Welcome to Georgia. Sorry about the rain; this time of year, we’re lucky it’s not snow.”
“No problem. Why am I here?” he asked impatiently. He was tired, and his manners were still somewhere over the Med.
Ignoring the question Vanner answered, “Do you have any more luggage?”