для читателей старше 18 лет
I am deeply indebted to the following people for encouraging and helping me in various ways during the writing of this book: Robin Bithrey, Elaine Bithrey and Yuriy Reitman.
All the characters are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The described events have never occurred in the described geographic areas.
Protected by Copyright Law
Copyright @ Yevtishenkov Igor
Events in Syria in 2015 brought thousands of people from different countries together and caused a clash between them. The reasons why all of them had been there were different, but war and the fear of death always make people equal. The desire to survive forces every human to act and, at times, it is not as he wants and is able. When a terrorist organization gets a weapon that can shoot down airplanes, the militants immediately use it against the American jets. One is brought down and its pilot manages to bail out, but no one knows how to save him. And who can do that? The difficult rescue operation aims to not only find the pilot, but also demonstrate the need for joint actions of all countries in the struggle against new extremist movements in the region. However, these are ordinary soldiers who have to make things happen and their fates, their pains and suffering have become the main theme of this story.
He had two hours left before taking off. A letter from his sister, as always, was full of nice wishes, home news and greetings from his mother and their neighbours. There was his mother’s standard postscript asking him to be careful because her heart won’t stand it, otherwise… She wrote that so often that it might be copied or used as a header of each page.
Lieutenant Harry Hawking opened the second email. It was from Carol. It was full of «tender kisses», laughter, memories, and a short story about a friend of hers, who got married and the groom ran away from the wedding and now everyone made fun of her. There was an emoticon and short note in the brackets: «Got it?» At the end Carol wrote she hoped he would have returned by the next Super Bowl: «You had known in advance that your favorite Seahawks would lose our Patriots and therefore you had not asked your General to let you be here for the final game. If you were here, I would be happy to see your face. We might have fun together. Six months have passed, you could have dropped at me for a day at least. By the way, Tom Brady’s got 4,551 successful passes and 143 interceptions. Besides, he’s got already two children as well. And he looks pretty good,» she joked.
Harry wrote back to her and added at the end: «Next time you see Tom Brady, tell him what you’d like to be a ball. Let him make the 4,552-nd good pass, and I will catch you here. I hope you will reach me as fast as all his passes did.»
His teammate, Nick, came into the cabin. Spotting Carol’s photo, he smiled and pretended looking the other way.
«Well, are you through emailing? He asked after a while, when Harry stopped typing on the keyboard.»
«Yes, what happened? Do you want to offer me whiskey?» smiled Harry.
«As usual, you’re kidding, but no, not now. A meeting has just been called as I guess they have some news. As I understand it, Intelligence never sleeps.»
«Ah, I see. Clear. They’ll probably talk about the Russians again — you know, be careful, no overlapping, no intersecting. The usual nonsense.»
«No, it seems more serious. Russia proposed to create a joint rescue team,» said Nick in a cheerful tone.
«What?» Harry did not even realize at first. «What team? Rescue? Whom?»
«Allegedly, the pilots and those guys, they mean, some intelligent agents, who may by chance get into the terrorists’ territory.»
«Did they all go crazy? Let them „ride their iron cows“ as long as they are allowed.»
«They are. They have a couple of good jets, though. I’ve seen them,» Nick folded his arms, made a serious face, and looked out the porthole.
«To hell with them! Why do we need them? Who should we rescue? They might have had a jet shot down?»
«No, they might not have, I guess. You take care of yourself, though, just in case!» his partner friendly patted his shoulder and portrayed a faint smile. Harry remembered quite well the case with Captain Simon, who had not returned from his flight and the press had been informed that the plane had crashed when landing on the aircraft carrier. Nick and his flight were flying then just above Simon and had to see everything. It happened at night and no one started digging deeper, though in fact Simon crashed over Aleppo when making a sharp turn over the territory of the rebels. The guys said it looked like he went into a turn that was too steep and lost control at low altitude. Later Nick told Harry that he had seen the dome in the place where Simon had been downed, but his tracker did not work and rebels reported that the plane was burned falling on their fuel storage facility. Nick hoped that Simon had survived although no one group had reported it.
«I will, don’t worry.»
«I heard the terrorists had some new Toyotas. I wonder who could sell them new trucks?»
«Yep, who?» Harry was undoing the last buttons and was ready to get out of the cabin.
«Don’t stare at Toyotas! You have the same one at home, don’t you? So if you see them down there, don’t think to land and drive!» Nick joked and laughed heartily. Harry said nothing. He just shook his head, chuckled, and went on deck.
The instructions were standard. At the end, the Colonel twice repeated that the minimum flight altitude had to be 9,800 feet. They had to destroy the landline facilities to the north of Raqqa. After the mission was completed they were supposed to return to a new base in southern Turkey — under Diyarbakir.
«When you are bombing Raqqa, keep in mind there is Deir-ez-Zor with Assad friends to the south. Don’t mix them up!» Colonel joked. «So far we don’t tend to attack them. Let’em play. Russians support them,» he chuckled. «OK, now aboard!
Harry wanted to make a joke about setting up a joint rescue group for saving their pet Assad, but checked himself in time remembering that it was Nick who had told him about it rather than the Colonel, so it would be better off not to grab too much attention before the flight. All guys also made fun of Russia’s vain attempts to «restore order’ on the earth from the sky. But «the people above» were playing their own games and Washington decided to see what all this would result in, so the pilots from aircraft carriers kept on bombing the targets that disturbed Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Technicians put on their helmets and ran off to the side. The first two jets moved off and went along the deck towards the sea having raised a huge cloud of fine wet dust to the air. A multicoloured rainbow immediately rose above it and Harry’s jet pierced it with its nose gently bouncing on the ski-jump trampoline at the end of the deck. He has loved the sky from his childhood and even now, when thousands of kilometers have left behind him, Harry still adored the feeling of floating and delight that seized him in every climb. Soon white clouds hid the muddy yellow ground with stripes of roads and dots of cities, and he switched to the semi-automatic mode, when the pilot needed only to watch the dashboard and keep in touch with the base.
Bolt upright officers stood blushing to the disgrace and looked at the floor frowning and listening to the raging commander. Major-General Zakharov was yelling but no one dared arguing with him.
«Whose drone is it? What the hell is that? No, I don’t give a shit, ff…, whose it is!» he didn’t say the four-letter word but just hissed its first letter. «Can you hear me? Can you, tell me exactly where all of goddamn toys are, ff..? Mother ff…, where are they? Suvorov, why the hell are you silent? Where’s a drone report, ff..? Fly to the base! Get in the hangar, cock sucker! Count every piece! Yourself! St. Petersburg has already sent their report but you are still bullshitting me, ff… Trubnikov, what’s this crap on the photo? What have those Turks found in the forest, eh? Can you tell me, rotten skunk, what kinda rotorcraft is on the photo, ff..?«cutting and biting the obscenities he continued to shout, demanding a report on the drone that had been downed on the Turkish territory.
«Comrade Major-General, SF Commander is calling you» a staff duty officer’s polite voice was heard behind him. They all looked at each other. If Commander sent the staff duty officer, it meant there were no aides by his side and he had been sent somewhere else. For all it was a sign that something important had happened.
«I’m on my way,» muttered Zakharov and quickly told the officers: «Count all drones and find out what model was shot down in Turkey! That’s all, you may go now!»
When he came into the only large room of the local headquarters, the Commander was waiting for him tapping his pencil on the desk.
«Come in, come in, Sergeyich! Do you have to keep shouting?» he smiled. Such treatment was new to Zakharov, so he felt a bit uneasy and did not know what to expect. The news could have been anything. Despite the good relations and mutual understanding in matters of service, he knew that first of all it was necessary to respect the chain of command.
«Comrade Colonel-General, I can’t be as polite as General Konashenkov is, you know,» he said with excuse. «I don’t speak with press.»
«You have to, though. Learn from it though. Okay, sit down — we’ve got to talk. Yes, I want to curse too and much stronger than you,» the Colonel-General paused looking at a few small sheets of paper lying on his desk. He moved them with a pencil in different directions and took one thoughtfully pursing his lips.
«Something happened, comrade Commander?» asked Zakharov carefully.
«No, it didn’t. We simply have to respond quickly to orders. And all of them have come from «the chief». Damn…» as soon as he heard these words, Zakharov understood that the task would be difficult because there had been just two orders from «the chief» up to this moment — the first one about informing NATO reps concerning the beginning of the military operation and the second about the stupid message when our aircraft ’touched the Turkish airspace with its wing.» Even the drone having downed in Turkey caused calls from the administration and the General Staff only.
«I’m ready to listen,» he said a stupid phrase feeling that it was inappropriate but he could not think of anything else.
«First, the «FS-6» model of Chinese Man-Portable Air Defenses — MANPADS — were discovered under Aleppo, where «the so-called moderate opposition’ tried to bring down our «SU» jets. The missile did not reach it. It looks like the missile range is around three thousand kilometers. The chief’s order is simple: no downed jets! Therefore, we have to fly at five thousand feet, no lower…»
«How come?» asked Zakharov. «It’s not up to us. How can the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth be bombing? They’ll have to decline.»
«I know… But now we have to fly at four thousand feet, okay? We can’t go lower. It’s actually dangerous. If they have a bunch of these fake MANPADS, what shall we do?»
«So, are we gonna bomb at random?» he asked cautiously. «What about the reports then?»
Commander shook his head and answered:
«The General Staff is thinking about this now. They are concerned too. Satellites will help. So for now, just take notice and do it. As for the second order, it has to do with the notorious joint rescue group. You must have heard in the morning that the Americans refused to join us, but the chief’s order remained. Don’t look like that! We’ll have to create a group on our own.»
«How? We do not have people,» Zakharov was right. All personnel were busy, soldiers performed many tasks, and there was no one free.
«I know,» the Colonel-General rubbed his nose and sighed. «You’ll be in charge of it. So get ready and make a list by the evening.»
«It’s almost impossible. There should be a sort of sting riot squad rather than cooks and technical staff.»
«Maybe you want to ask me for Caucasian guys? They’ll be here in no time and will be happy to fight», sadly noted Colonel-General. His tired eyes smiled for the first time.
«And what’s the use of it? Here every second militant has already arrived from our Caucasus,» muttered Zakharov.
«Right, but that’s not all yet», the elderly man stood up and came up to the window. He parted the blinds and sighed seeing someone outside. «The third order concerns the journalists. They must be delivered to the city of Deir-ez-Zor.
«Where?! It’s, ff…» Zakharov looked at him with wide eyes open. Then he desperately blinked and rubbed his forehead to stop cursing.
«Here they are, happy and glad,» the Commander nodded toward the window and turned to the desk. «I sent an officer for them. All the reporters are ordered to be carried to Deir-ez-Zor this night. Besides, those „top agitators“ from the TV called me later and started advising… They were wondering if their guys could fly to other areas here. They said they needed to film „strong resistance“ of the Syrian army. That’s what they were said to do and we have to help them by any means. So, you can see, it’s no use shouting and yelling.»
«Our SUs can’t give them a lift over there. Especially, if there are Chinese MANPADS in the area. And there is no place for them to land there. There’s only space for helicopters. Can we use ours?» asked Zakharov.
«Hell, no! The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible. Syrians say they have four MI-8 helicopters. They confirmed that were flying every day. Trust but verify. So you have to urgently send our technicians over there. But who will accompany the journalists? They can’t go there without our support. It’s not Latakia.»
«I’ll send our technicians! To tell the truth I don’t know what to do with the support team…» frowned Zakharov, but then he saw a gingerly adjutant appearing in the doorway and added: «We’ll do that, comrade Colonel-General!»
«The reporters are here and one more thing… Lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev has come,» the adjutant said quietly and stood still waiting for an answer.
«Send the journalists to the hangar for now! Let them collect their cameras over there. And tell Sergeyev to come in!» without looking up said the Commander continuing to move pieces of paper on the map with his pencil.
«Comrade Colonel-General…» the lieutenant-colonel entered the room and stopped short in mid-sentence having noticed the Commander’s raised hand, then looked at Zakharov with astonishment. The General nodded briefly to him.
«Why are you constantly yelling today?» muttered the grey-haired general and rubbed his sweaty neck. «What’s up with you, Sergeyev?»
«Leaflets are ready. We printed them especially for the defense of Deir-ez-Zor. The whole lot is done. We’ve packed them. So they are ready for shipment.»
«Leaflets for Deir-ez-Zor?» he said slowly, squinting oddly, but thoughtfully at his subordinate. The General knew this experienced officer and had been acquainted with his personal record before the arrival of the special propaganda group. Lieutenant colonel Sergeyev graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, learned from Commander’s former comrades who, along with him, took part in the second Egyptian campaign as military experts and later worked in Lebanon and Yemen. The main Intelligence Directorate used him in some operations in the Middle East and two months ago the General Staff had an idea to use psychological influence on the enemy. They started looking for the «survivors» of specialists. Staffing positions existed, but, alas, there were no skillful professionals capable to deploy mobile teams in the regular units. The only thing they managed to do was organize working groups and assign them a commander from the former professionals, who at least had an idea of what they all would have to do. That man was forty-year-old Sergeyev. His team dropped the first lots of leaflets from helicopters successfully without being shot down. However, no one terrorist was going to surrender and even retreat. Therefore, military commanders hoped that he would come up with something new to affect the fighters.
And then, looking at the strong, tanned lieutenant-colonel, the Commander suddenly realized, who’d be sent to Deir-ez-Zor.
«Listen!» he said peremptorily and Major-General Zakharov, who was sitting before, had to stand up, acknowledging the change of mood. «You take your printing group and get them ready to fly. Let them pick up all leaflets. Then you’ll go with Zaharov’s technicians to the Syrians. Check two MI-8. If our guys give the-go-ahead, you’ll take off at night. The whole group. You’ll be accompanying the journalists to Deir-ez-Zor and back. Keep an eye on them in the city! Keep up with them, don’t let them walk alone! You’ll work out the route on your own. It should be familiar to you. You did it, didn’t you?»
«Uh… That’s right…» frowned lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev out of habit. He had a lot of questions but decided to think further and ask them later.
«That’s great! When approaching you’ll drop leaflets,» grinned the Commander. «Alright, dismissed, go and gather your guys! You’ll get all instructions from Zakharov later and tell Basil out there to call the journalists,» he said at the end, when Sergeyev already opened the door. The adjutant heard his name and the last words and hastened to execute the order without entering the Commander’s study.
A hush fell over the room, and then two generals started discussing details of the operation. They knew nobody was perfect and tried their best to provide for everything just to be on the safe side.
«Pack all the leaflets into bags and load on pallets!» ordered lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev.
«There are no pallets, Ivanych… they haven’t returned since the last time…» a strong figure of captain Nechyporenko came out of the shadows. He commanded a battalion «on the mainland», as they are now called Russia, and served in many military regions, but believed the most difficult period were his three years, spent in a unit under Bodaibo, where food and post were dropped from helicopters to prevent desperate soldiers from jumping on board. «Don’t be so harsh! What’s happened?»
«We should get them all packed and prepared by the evening.»
«Don’t worry, take it easy! We’re done packing. You see, we’re lying around, doing nothing, enjoying life,» Nechyporenko was smiling as usual.
«I see. Now I’m going to check two MI-8. If they’re okay, we’ll go onboard and fly to drop the leaflets,» said Sergeyev discontentedly, wiping the sweat from his brow. «And then gotta spend a week in Deir-ez-Zor. We’ll be accompanying the journalists.»
«You mean «TV-jokers», right?» the captain grinned derisively because he did not like to call them «reporters». He thought they were gawking instead of reporting. «Well, let’s give them a lift. That’s great! Why not? Are we flying together?«he asked, still smiling.
«No, we aren’t. The whole group is. All seven people are.»
«Oh, that’s it!» Nechyporenko took his cap off and scratched his head. “ Yes… Something’s wrong here. Why do they need all our guys? One camera to each soldier?
«Sort of,» the lieutenant-colonel’s reply was terse and a strange expression didn’t leave his face, as if he’s sunk his teeth into a piece of lemon. When he left the base along with General Zakharov’s several technicians, the captain realized that his commander was tormented by doubt. Usually Sergeyev was in a good mood and loved joking but today he was clearly not up to the jokes. They got acquainted four months ago, and the captain had not previously seen his new commander so worried. He was tense as a string but soon Nechyporenko forgot about this impression, distracted by the loading. He had to inform his subordinates about the news and tell them to carry forty bags to the gate. Also they were supposed to get their hand weapon. It might be useful under such circumstances.
Then, five journalists, happy and cheerful, were sitting in the Commander’s office and really did not understand why their flight of just a short 500 kilometers and primarily over desert, made the military men worried.
«It doesn’t look like they’re fighting here at all,» said the head of the group, Yuriy Tegov, somehow trying to smooth over the awkward pause.»
«Have you been to the coast?» asked the Colonel-General in the same tone, having raised his head from the papers with pencil inscriptions spread on his desk. Even at a distance of two meters, it was not possible to discern what was written on them.
«Yeah, cool! Like in Turkey. Very few people, some swimming. We also went swimming.»
«And the city has a lot of things too — food, fruit, shops are open,» added his friend pointing to his bag with bananas sticking out. «I haven’t seen or tasted such sweet grape! Ever! My fingers stick together! Nothing but sugar!
«Fructose,» corrected the grey-haired General. «But it doesn’t matter. Upon arrival to the city you will obey lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev. He will come back in the evening to meet you. Departure is late in the evening, after five or six p.m. Enough time to do your packing?»
«Plenty. Why is it so urgent, though? Can’t we fly in daytime? We could record the entire territory from the air. It might be exclusive footage,» wondered journalist Tegov. «Can’t we do without helicopters?» he asked hopefully but saw both generals’ faces darkening.
«No, you can’t,» came the short answer. «It’s not a beach in Latakia. That’s all! Get ready!»
«Yes, comrade Colonel-General!» joked the journalist, saluting him.
«You mustn’t salute without a service cap on,» noted Zakharov with displeasure.
«It’s out of habit. In Donbass I always wore a helmet, even slept with it on,» added Tegov with a cheerful twinkle in his eyes. «And here is just like paradise.»
«Okay, okay, go. Be careful out there — let nothing happen,» said the frowning head of the group. «And listen to Sergeyev! That’s an order!»
Helicopters took off from the base of the Syrian Air Forces just after sunset. Big, roomy cars were packed with small but heavy bales, which, prior to departure, five soldiers wearing light faded uniform had been sweating whilst loading for a long time. The flight lasted for several hours but nothing of interest for the journalists happened. Recording was not allowed. Dark sky with bright stars no longer attracted them, the desert below was in solid darkness, no lights, and on board, too, everyone was so silent, as if it was the most secret operation of the century. Only upon approaching Deir-ez-Zor were «the press’ requested to get ready. Suddenly the side doors opened and five soldiers tore packing bags apart and dropped down thousands and thousands of leaflets. Correspondents were allowed to carry those bags from the far side up to the opened door.
«Agitation and propaganda in action!» exclaimed Tag, panting and wiping sweat from his forehead. Even cool wind that was rushing into the open door of the helicopter, did not help him cool down the work made all of them feel hot.
«So far these are just leaflets. It’s only agitation. I don’t think things will reach the propaganda stage,» the loud response felt like it was directly in his ear. The wind flapped the folds of the slim lieutenant-colonel’s uniform, who was holding onto a handle above his head and apparently preventing him from falling.
«Won’t they? Does it make any difference?» Tegov shouted back.
«Wrong time for lessons now, but in short, agitation means mere suggestion without logic, just emotions; propaganda means persuasion, conviction, an attempt to appeal to reason. Got it?»
«Got it. Then tell me what this is?» there was a small Quran in the side pocket of his backpack, which was presented to him at the market by a good-natured Arab. He wanted the Russian reporter to become a Muslim, and so gave him the tattered book. «Here you go, they can give their Qurans to everyone!» Tegov reached out his hand, took it out of his backpack and turned over in his hands intending to throw down along with leaflets. But the lieutenant-colonel grabbed his arm and stopped.
«The Quran is pure propaganda. Leave it on board. Nobody needs it down there,» the book fell on the bag, and Tag no longer saw it. He did not speak with the strange lieutenant-colonel, who he had to listen to, until the landing. But after landing, all of the soldiers changed dramatically: they were joking, slapping each other on the back and acting as if there was no difference in rank between them. Tegov intuitively felt that they had been threatened in the air, and now the danger disappeared. He also happily grabbed a large bag and began to help the operator to unload the equipment. Morning came unexpectedly quickly and was very bright. Although the shooting was not heard, they were hidden in a small building, where the lieutenant-colonel started talking to the local military men. His subordinates sat down under the window. Soon they decided to have a short rest but the journalists did not wait for their meal and fell asleep right on the floor. It was quiet till noon and then they were awakened by the distant shots of artillery and small arms. Helicopter pilots were sleeping by one wall, two Syrian soldiers with machine guns were sitting near the door, and five Russian soldiers along with the reporters were lying along another wall. There was only the lieutenant-colonel and another man in uniform. But Tegov thought about the other thing. They had to eat and get ready for filming. Two or three hours left before they had to start sending the first footage to Moscow. In order to do that it was enough to at least shoot a few houses and climb onto a roof to show a panoramic view.
If Tegov had known what was happening at that moment in the adjacent building, where the headquarters of the Syrian defense were housed, he would have forgotten about everything and seized immediately on the news but he was quietly having his meal and thinking about his job only.
A sharp turn following the first aircraft pressed Harry into his chair but it could not be considered an overload. He looked down to where clouds of dust were rising after the numerous bomb explosions and missiles could be seen. The camera was filming a report: cross-hairs coincided with the targets, electronics showed an exact hit. He had to turn around and make a few more bombing runs from the south of the city of Raqqa. It was their first combat mission in the territory of Syria. They usually had flown over Afghanistan and Iraq before. However, the top view was dull and monotonous and did not differ from the previous landscapes even though Afghanistan and Iraq had more mountainous regions. Here, in Syria, everything was like the valleys and rolling hills. Cities crowded along the narrow strip of the Euphrates that was stretching from north to south. Raqqa was located on both banks and Harry recollected how he was swimming with Carol in the Colourado River, and then climbing a long staircase to watch an incredibly beautiful purple sunset in the Grand Canyon.
Just hands themselves performed all the operations, his eyes followed the instruments on the panel, and his thoughts at that time made a pleasant journey through the past. Yes, there were not sunsets like in the Grand Canyon. The sun disappeared in those areas as quickly as if sinking into a deep hole.
The long turn finished and some small hills showed up on the right. By sight, they did not exceed 5,000 feet. Altimeter showed straight distance of 10,500 feet, which was in line with Colonel Henry’s order. So after performing the second task, Harry started making a turn, following his leader to set a new course. Now they were to fly to Turkey. Short mountains appeared at the bottom and he could not see them but he did not try to find any admirable beauty among those dirty-brown and dark-yellow hills. His eyes were riveted on the panel checking all the usual indicators. The route was laid out beforehand and controlled automatically by GPS. At that moment, a white bird flew ahead. From the corner of his eye Harry noticed a long white trail following it. It took his brain a split second to explode with that terrible word: «Missile!»
It has flown a hundred feet from the leader’s wing and Harry shouted words of caution without thinking:
«Eagle, a missile’s to the right! You’re under attack! Eagle the attack was on the right! It seems to be MANPADS!»
«I hear you, Blackhawk, no need to shout,» surprisingly calmly replied the commander. «Climb up! All crews: climb up! Were going up to 17,000. All up to 17,000!» then he began to communicate with the base and Harry pulled on the wheel disabling the semi-automatic control. Just out of curiosity, he leaned against the cabin glass and looked down.
«Holy Mother of Jesus!» he exclaimed, when another «white bird» took off and a wisp of smoke headed in their direction. «Eagle, the second’s flying!!!» he yelled an inhuman voice but there was no answer. At the last moment, the thought flickered into his head that he needs to let the wheel go and throw the plane to the side but his hands stubbornly continued to pull on it.
Easy push in the back was more like a pat, but it meant something quite different and terrible. He saw that the rear ailerons did not respond. Leader’s jet up ahead began to fly away, but Harry’s started tilting slowly with its nose to the ground. He was wearing the gloves, but he felt them instantly becoming wet.
«Blackhawk, what’s wrong?» he heard in his headphones. «Eagle, I’ve been hit!» he muttered perplexedly.
«Blackhawk, I can’t hear you. Say it again!»
«I’ve been hit! Damn, what should I do, Eagle? We’re in enemy territory and I can see a city ahead. There’s no chance to land there.»
«Can you make a turn? Do it and try to reach Deir-ez-Zor. There are Syrians over there. If you can’t, just bail out! Don’t lose the tracker!»