Authors: Stephen Coonts
“Destiny?” The old man snorted.
“After we defeat Japan? The great days for Russia all lie ahead. Without the paranoia of the Cold War, the psychotic babble of the Communists, and the expense of a huge military establishment, Russia will bloom as she has never bloomed before. You may live to see it, Ilin.”
A day or so later, as Ilin put away his charts and notes after a briefing, he said, “Too bad Samsonov is not here. He was brilliant.”
“That he was,” the marshal agreed. “He was my prodigy. I know genius when I see it, and I saw it in him. He was the best we had. Just when we needed him most, he is gone. Sometimes I wonder if God still loves Russia.”
“God had nothing to do with Samsonov's death,” Ilin said, his eyes carefully searching the old man's face.
“What are you saying?”
“I want to know if I speak in confidence.”
“Do you think I have a loose tongue?”
“I think you are an honorable man, but if I am wrong we are both doomed.”
“I have no time for this.”
Ilin's eyes didn't miss a single muscle twitch in Stolypin's face. “Kalugin had Samsonov executed. Kalugin's personal bodyguard killed him. They buried him in the forest thirty miles north of the city.”
The old man's face turned gray. “How do you know this?”
“My business is to know things. I have spies everywhere. My God, man, this is still Russia.”
“You have proof?”
From his jacket pocket Ilin produced a small photograph and passed it to the marshal. Samsonov's head lay on a mound of dirt. There was a large bullet hole in his forehead. His eyes were open.
“The hole in his forehead was the exit hole. He was shot from behind.”
Stolypin handed over the photo.
Ilin took out a match, struck it, applied it to the corner of the celluloid. He dropped the flaming picture in an ashtray.
“Why did you tell me this?”
“Kalugin has his men checking out the nuclear weapons at Trojan Island. They took the top experts in Russia with them.”
Marshal Stolypin took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. He kept his eyes on the residue of the photograph in the ashtray. A wisp of smoke danced delicately in the eddies of air.
Stolypin met Ilin's eyes.
Ilin continued: “I am told that when Kalugin's men are sent to kill someone, they ask the victim to sit in the front passenger seat. As the car rolls along, they talk of inconsequential things. When the victim is relaxed, off his guard, he is shot in the back of the head. It is quite painless, I believe.”
“So you have warned me.”
Ilin nodded. After a bit, he spoke again, softly. “Aleksandr Kalugin is another Joseph Stalin. He is paranoid and has no scruples, none whatever.
“He is insane,” Marshal Stolypin said slowly, remembering his discussion with Kalugin several days before, during which the president smashed a glass table with his fist.
The Russians named the outfit American Squadron and ran stories on television and in newspapers to improve public morale. The capabilities of the F-22 Raptor were extolled to the skies. The Russian reporters called it a “superplane,” the best in the world. Flown by these ace American pilots, all of whom had volunteered to fly and fight for the Russian Republic, the F-22 would sweep the Japanese criminals from the skies in short order.
Street kiosks sold posters showing the American volunteers standing around an F-22 with the flag of old Russia painted on the fuselage. No one outside the squadron was told that the flag had been painted on with water-based paint. After the photographers left, the linesmen carefully washed the still-damp paint from the aircraft's smart skin.
Col. Bob Cassidy was appalled when the military situation was explained to him at headquarters in Moscow. The Russians were not yet ready to resist the Japanese on the ground with conventional warfare tactics.
When he was taken to meet Marshal Stolypin after the briefing, he kept his opinions to himself. The old man's face revealed nothing. He listened to the translator, nodded, examined Cassidy as if he were looking at a department-store dummy.
Bob Cassidy sat at attention. He felt as if he were back in the Air Force Academy for doolie summer. The old man had that effect.
Now the Russian marshal commented.
“We are doing what we can for Russia, Colonel. I am sure your president would say that he also is doing what he can. I expect you to do likewise.”
“Yes, sir,” Cassidy said, blushing slightly when he had heard the translation.
The marshal continued, absolutely impassive.
“I would like for the American Squadron to attack the Japanese air force. Win air superiority. Once you have it, or while you are winning it, shoot down their transports, prevent them from repairing the railroads. If the Japanese are dependent on ground transportation, we will defeat them this winter.”
“May I ask, Marshal, how much pressure you want us to put on enemy truck convoys?”
“Use your discretion, Colonel. I am of a mind to give the Japanese all of Siberia they wish to take. It is a very big place. On the other hand, if you can create in them a burning desire to return to Japan, you will save many lives.”
The thought occurred to Bob Cassidy that Stolypin must play a hell of a game of poker. “This winter, your army will attack?”
“This winter,” said Marshal Stolypin, “we will kill every Japanese soldier in Siberia. Every last one.”
When the aerial wagon train arrived at the air base in Chita, the C-5 transports landed first. The base consisted of two runways, almost parallel, about seven thousand feet long. There wasn't much room for error. The transports landed and taxied off the runway into the parking area while Col. Bob Cassidy kept his flight of six F-22s high overhead. Two other airports, each with two runways, lay a few miles to the southwest. These were old military bases and had not been maintained, so the concrete was crumbling. An emergency landing there would probably ruin jet engines.
Cassidy was keeping a close eye on his tac display. A Washington colonel, Evan Register, had given Cassidy and the pilots accompanying him to Chita a brief last night, before the beer bust.
“The Athena device in the new Zeros will keep them hidden from your radar. And shooting an AMRAAM at a Zero is a waste of a good missileâAthena will never let the darn thing find its target. Leave
your radar off. Radiating will make you a beacon for the Zerosâthey will come like a moth to light.
“Sky Eye is your edge. The radars in the satellites have doppler capability. While they cannot see the Zeros, they can see the wakes they make in the air, especially when they are supersonic. A supersonic shock wave is quite distinctive.”
“Wait a minute,” one of the junior pilots said, wanting to believe but not quite ready to. “What's the catch?”
In the back of the room, Cassidy tilted his chair back and grinned. Stanford Tuck had not let him down.
“Well, of course there are some technical limitations,” the Washington wizard admitted. “This
cutting-edge technology. Detecting aircraft wakes with doppler works best in calm air. Summer turbulence, thunderstorms, rain, hailâall such conditions degrade the capability. The computer can sort it out to some extent, but remember the satellites are whizzing along, so the picture is constantly changing, and there is a lot of computing involved. We've been watching the wakes of Zeros for several weeks now. As long as the weather doesn't change, we'll be okay.”
Cassidy looked at his troops and shrugged. What could you do?
At 25,000 feet over Chita, Bob Cassidy wondered how effective Sky Eye was today. The air at this altitude seemed smooth enough. The sun was diffused by a high, thin layer of cirrus, which cut the glare somewhat.
The land below looked uninviting. Chita was a small town on the upper reaches of the Amur River, backed up against a snow-covered mountain range, with another to the south. The arid land reminded Cassidy of Nevada or central Oregon. The runways below looked like bright strips on the yellow-brown earth. From this altitude the aircraft parking mats and a few buildings, probably hangars, were also visible.
Fifteen hundred miles from the sea, the Amur River was a seasonal stream now carrying water from melting snow. Two bridges crossed the river, one for the Trans-Siberian Railroad and one for trucks. Just before the snows came, the river would cease to flow. Any water trapped in it would freeze solid.
Khabarovsk lay a thousand miles downstream. From there, the river flowed northwest another five hundred miles to the Sea of Okhotsk.
The tac display showed empty sky around the F-22 formation. He punched the display to take in all the territory between Chita and Zeya, five hundred nautical miles east. Five hundred nautical miles, the dis
tance between Boston and Detroit. The distances in Siberia were going to take some getting used to. The land was vast beyond imagination. Man had barely made an imprint here.
Cassidy wondered about Jiro Kimura. Was he still alive? And if so, where was he?
Jiro was on his mind a lot lately, just when he should be thinking of something else, concentrating on the job at hand. Cassidy growled at himself and tried to think of other things.
Not a single bogey on the tac display, neither toward Khabarovsk nor Nikolayevsk. That bothered Cassidy. It would be nice if the satellite saw one or twoâ¦but it didn't. Apparently. Subject, of course, to the inevitable high-tech glitches.
Cassidy glanced down at the transports on the airfield. They were quite plain at this altitude. If all was going as planned, the crews were unloading the Sentinel batteries, which were mounted on trailers. The aircraft also brought four Humvees, which would pull the trailers. A Sentinel unit was being spotted on each side of the runway and turned on. The others would be towed away from the base that afternoon and evening, set up in a pattern on local roads in the area. As soon as the units were off-loaded, the two C-5s would take off and head back over the pole toward Alaska. Tankers were supposed to meet them several hours out.
Tankers had been crucial to the success of this operation, moving airplanes and equipment a third of the way around the globe and arriving ready to fight. Finding a tanker in the vastness of the sky had always been a challenge, a real tightrope act when one was low on fuel. GPS now made the rendezvous phase routine, which was fine by everyone.
Now Cassidy eyed his fuel gauges. The fighters had tanked an hour ago, so they were fat, but Cassidy didn't know how much longer he could remain strapped to this ejection seat. He'd been sitting in this cockpit over six hours. He itched and ached. He squirmed in the seat, trying to give his numb butt some relief.
Another half hour passed. One of the C-5s taxied to the end of the runway, sat there for five minutes, then began to roll. The other was taxiing as the first one lifted off.
Cassidy waited until the C-5s were ten minutes north, then pulled the throttles back and started down.
The first problem the Americans faced was parking their planes. The base was beyond the tactical range of Zeros flying from Khabarovsk, which was cold comfort since the Japanese now had planes at Zeya. And if they used a tanker, they could strike this base anytime they wished from almost anywhere, including Japan.
With that in mind, the F-22s were dispersed all over the field. The revetments were full of obviously abandoned fighters, some of them old MiG-19s and MiG-21s. Some of these antiques had flat tires, oil leaks, sand and bird's nests in the intakes. The Americans pushed and pulled the Russian iron out of the revetments and put the F-22s in. Then they rigged camouflage nets.
Some of the best spots, concrete revetments completely hidden by large trees, were already taken by Sukhoi-27s, which looked ready to fly. The Sukhois were attended by grubby, skinny Russians who smelled bad and didn't speak English. The Americans passed out candy bars and soon made friends. While the candy was eaten eagerly, the Russians really wanted cigarettes, which the Americans didn't have.
Now that he was on the ground, Cassidy thought the Chita area was a bit like Colorado. The base and the small town huddled around the railroad station a few miles away were in a basin, surrounded by snow-covered mountains to the north, west, and south. The air was crystal-clear. From here, it was a long way to anywhere.
At least the communications were first-rate: The Americans had brought their own com gear, portable radios that bounced their signals off a satellite, which meant that the operators could talk to anyone on the planet.
Cassidy got on the horn immediately. He used the cryptological encoder, set it up based on the date and time in Greenwich, then waited until it phased in. When he got a dial tone, he called the Air Force command center in the Cheyenne Mountain bunker in Colorado Springs.
“All quiet, Colonel. They haven't stirred much today.”
Bob Cassidy breathed a sigh of relief. By the following morning, the defenses here would be ready, but not quite yet.