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!»
It was the last message from his commander. Harry’s plane started shivering as if it was alive and then suddenly was jetting up and down and twisting around. Miraculously, he fought its urge to roll into a tailspin. The silver line of the river was to the left, he succeeded in turning around and was heading southwards. Unfortunately, he had no clue how long he’d be able to last. The jet could fall down at any time. When the altitude was 3,000 feet, he removed the cap from the firing trigger, pressed back against the backrest, and pushed it into the handle. The cockpit’s canopy flew back and he was ejected like the training exercises he’d performed many times before. He barely felt the blow. Only a strong wind was blowing in his face and didn’t let him open his eyes, but soon Harry was able to handle it and he saw the hated dirty-brown, bumpy ground, landing at which did not promise him anything good. He did not hear the explosion, only saw a black cloud of smoke not far from ahead. This was all that remained of his aircraft. When his feet touched the ground, a parachute slowly descended from above, and he had to get out from under it, dreading that terrorists might come here and shoot him at any moment. Light fabric remained lying on the ground. Harry sat on an earthen mound and looked around. So far, it was quiet. His head worked well: first, he needed to remove the anti G-suit, get rid of all the excess, climb a hill and look around. They’ll be looking for him, for sure. The tracker in his flying suit won’t let him get lost. He has to be calm and don’t panic!
At the top of the nearest slope, Harry caught his breath and was finally able to look around. There was no road in sight. He could see clay hills ahead, which turned into rocky cliffs. His jet fell over there. The way to the south lay behind it and it was the way towards a small city of the Syrian regular army, where he could feel safe. If guys arrive quickly, then it’s no use carrying plenty of appliances and fixtures in the pockets. If they don’t, he will have to climb over the cliffs and hills and go farther to the south. So the extra weight was dangerous. Deir-ez-Zor was supposedly about one hundred kilometers walk away from these hills. In either case it was necessary to rely solely on the speed of movement. To do this he had to throw off all the weight.
Harry picked only multi-charge gun FNX, Camillus knife, GPS-navigator, some water, rations and light gloves. Tearing a balaclava, he hooked it over his head and walked briskly toward the clouds of dust and smoke hanging over the cliffs. He wanted to believe that he would manage to overcome the hill before the terrorists show up here.
The black column of smoke got thinner but it still was rising above the spot where the jet crashed. Just to avoid climbing on the rocks he was forced to pass very close by the fire making a small detour. Here the rise was less steep. When he heard stones rustling underfoot, it became easier to go. Soon large boulders and destroyed tops of the rocks showed up, and further lay down the road to salvation. Pausing, Harry caught his breath and took a GPS reading. Here he could go down and then move a little to the left, to the southeast. He was about to take the first step, when he noticed some movement at the bottom. His heart trembled and stopped — there were figures of people at the end of the long slope. They were about fifty. The distance was not more than a kilometer. He spotted five pickups behind them. The bright rays of the sun made the white, yellow and black bodies of the cars with heavy machine guns in the back well visible. Next to them swarmed several people. Judging by the overcrowding and slow movements they were dragging something. There was a black flag flying over one car — there were no doubts these were militants.
«What?.. How?» he muttered. It was beyond his imagination how they could appear here so quickly. It was impossible!
The eyes caught a strange movement of terrorists on the slope — they were in no hurry to rise, standing still in one place, then they all moved in the same direction as if they have someone in command. It soon became clear that the man who showed the others a way to go was in the middle. Harry automatically counted all the arrived: fifty-three and six near the cars. Fifty nine in total. When the figures made a curve and suddenly turned toward him, it dawned on Harry that they must have had a device tracking his tracker! Logic dictated that he should be out of sight, so that they could yet not detect him. His feet carried him the right, away from the plane and his pursuers. After fifty paces, he suddenly realized that they would detect him at any point as soon as they rose up. Plus, they might have more than one device. Why not? Then it’s no use hiding. He looked out and saw the people below frozen in indecision. After a few seconds, they all turned as one to his side and began to climb. The questions frantically flashed in his head:
1. Why were the militants on the other side of the hill?
2. Why were they going up so slowly?
3. Why were their cars in one place?
4. What did they unload?
Responses were just hypothetical, but his main question was already answered: he had to get rid of the tracker at once!
Harry has probably never run so fast. When the heat of the burning fuel on the ground touched his face, he dropped to his knees and could not breathe for a few seconds feeling nausea and a nagging stomachache. His hands, however, found the knife and cut off the top part of his flying suit, where the tracker was sewed in. GPS-navigator followed it and flew in the fire. So now he had nothing but water, rations, a knife and a pistol. Harry rose to his feet but his leg muscles were heavy, they did not obey, and his shoes were desperately clinging to the rustling stones of the slope. There seemed to be a swamp under the feet rather than small stones.
Harry climbed up at the same place where he was only twenty minutes ago, and he peered over the edge of a cliff. The terrorists continued rising slowly in the direction, where they spotted his tracker last time. It should only take them ten minutes, so he had to figure out where to hide. Burrowing into the clay was impossible — he just did not have enough time. He desperately looked around. There were the towering grey-black boulders and peaks on the top of the hill. Hiding among them under a stone was stupid. They would find him there anyway. Just then, two tiny points appeared in the sky. Harry could have sworn he saw a double tail of an F-15. He wanted to jump up, but restrained himself in time. The pilots must spot him! They must, for sure! But how? How could he help them? A rock might help — he could lie on the top to help them! Luckily, nearby were the highest peaks of the hill. Harry had to make an effort to climb up on one of them but up there he looked around and realized that it would be best to climb up to the next one. It took him a lot of skill to do it again. Once lying on the top and breathing heavily, Harry knew that this was now the best place to hide. The top split long ago and formed a small dip in the middle. No one could see him from below. Bending his knees he pressed his hands, part of his back and neck in hard stone. Something inside told him that this was not enough, that it was necessary to penetrate between the cracks and ledges in order to merge with them, make his body fill in all space and entirely dissolve in the piece of the rock. Panic was grabbing his mind. The heart started beating non-stop. He had to take a few deep breaths and then hold his breath. He could see two long white strips with dark dots on the end moving high in the sky. Watching their slow movement Harry was able to divert his attention from the fear and relaxed a bit. But when he heard unfamiliar voices near the rock, the muscles involuntarily toughened and he could hardly restrain himself not to open the trigger lock. Thoughts were jumping from the US to Syria whispering in the mind: «The guys already know. Everybody knows. The Admiral told the Pentagon. They’ll arrive, be sure to arrive. It takes three hours to come down to the bases in Turkey. And a couple more to get here. Gotta hold out until sunset.»
Voices came close to rock bottom and he heard suspicious noises. All thoughts of rescue and assistance of fearsome marines immediately vanished. In addition, the tracker was burned in the fire. Tension had reached its limit. In order not to make a fatal mistake, he had to relax and keep his hand away from the gun, or at least stop thinking about it because his thumb was constantly being drawn to the trigger lock. Harry decided to mentally turn to Carol. It was a short letter-prayer. He realized that he was thinking about stupid things but he did not have anything else. Love, promise to marry, an engagement ring, a luxury wedding he clenched his eyelids tightly and promised her everything begging her to wait for him because this request hid his hope of salvation.
A loud shot stunned him, interrupting the letter in mid-sentence. «Mortar, gun, grenade?» flashed in his head. After a few seconds, a vague white line appeared in the sky. They shot from down here! And they shot at the jets. But the missiles did not reach the goal — the airplanes were flying too high. The noise of voices from below escalated into shouting. The men were obviously arguing. Soon the noise shifted to the black smoke that was still rising from the wreckage of his plane. It went quiet below. Harry dared to turn his head slightly and moved up to the edge. He could see only a small portion of the slope through the slit. A few figures were moving down it. After a little time, he grew bolder and raised his head.
People with guns were walking among the fragments and two were standing near the place where he threw his tracker into the fire. One had the device in his hands, and the other was trying to pull something out of the fiercely burning fire and smoke with a stick. It was impossible because of heat. They found the tracker’s position and were looking for his corpse. But there was still a parachute not far from there! He had no time to bury it. He had nothing to do but wait for militants’ further steps.
There was a sound of footsteps under his rock. Harry sat back and stood still. He had to hold out until sunset. And he desperately wanted to release his bladder. This problem became dangerous too. He remembered his father was put in a large diaper every morning in his nursing home and taken a walk. At this moment Harry would have given his right arm to have the same one here.
«We aren’t sure that Hawking died,» the Colonel tilted his head towards his shoulder and carefully answered the Admiral’s silent question. I did the last briefing with him. He was in great shape. A really good mood. According to two reconnaissance aircrafts, his jet crashed here in the area to the south of Raqqa,» he pointed the crash site on the map. «His group reported that he had ejected. Reconnaissance aircrafts also confirmed that they saw a parachute on the ground. They were shot at with a single shot from a MANPAD too.»
«So the militants have received MANPADS from China eventually. Their Arabian sheikhs paid for them…» the Admiral shook his head.
«How did they shoot him down? You said the flight range of MANPAD’s missiles was 9,800 feet, no further!
«Yes, Sir!» the Colonel nodded. This data arrived from the Pentagon. However, their trajectory shows that they can fly up to 13,000 feet.
«Hawking’s jet altitude was almost 16,000, right?»
«Yes, Sir! However, the shot was taken from the top of this hill here. They climbed up to the top and cut the distance for a shot. That is just 3,200 feet. Therefore, the missile was right on the edge of its range. The first shot went past the wing of the leader and the second one touched Hawking’s.»
«God damn it!» the Admiral could not take a decision on the rescue of the pilot and this indecision irritated him more than Colonel’s formal report. «Did you find his tracker?»
«Yes, Sir! It is located right in the area of the crash. It’s in the fire. There are about fifty terrorists round there, which is why, we may surmise that Hawking did it on purpose.»
«Hmm… It’s a strange decision. He would have been forced to do that, if he saw they had a device detecting our trackers. But this is impossible. It’s the latest version.»
«Yes, Sir!» the Colonel paused and added: «But the Chinese MANPADS appeared unexpectedly as well.»
«Damn you!» the Admiral could not resist. «We can’t land our people there. If we lose a single one, it will cause uproar in the Senate and heads will roll… not just ours!»
«Yes, I know, Sir. The elections are coming and Republicans will not miss the opportunity…»
«I knew you understood me!»
«Excuse me, Sir, I have one more thing.»
«Which one?» the Admiral felt that his subordinate had some idea.
«We could send a few storm troopers. They would drop empty boxes by parachute a little further than where Hawking landed. If terrorists approach them, our planes fire». This will distract them and enable Hawking to reveal his location… in any way… Yes, he’ll find a way. He will think of something. He has the technical means.»
«And if the terrorists do not approach? Or only half of them do? Or there is a second option: Hawking has gone in another direction? Or the third one: Hawking died. What then?»
«Then you have a clear conscience, Sir,» said the Colonel, quietly. «We can’t do more than that.»
«Hmm… How long do you need to prepare a new group?» asked the Admiral in quite a different voice. His previous doubt and uncertainty had left him.
«Two hours, Sir!» answered the Colonel, cheerfully, barely holding back a joyful smile.
«Do it!» sounded a short order and soon three crews began to prepare for an emergency flight.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon in Latakia. There was a heat wave in the streets and people were hiding in the shadows to escape the merciless sun. The Russian Commander’s room was full of nervous tension. Several people in Russian and Syrian uniform got together to discuss joint plans for conducting an unusual operation. Syrian military men were communicating with their units surrounding Deir-ez-Zor. Simultaneously, General Zakharov was discussing the same things with lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev who was in the city too. Sergeyev was sitting in a small room five hundred miles away and glumly listening to instructions.
«Most importantly, remember the codes as agreed,» said General Zakharov at the end.»
«Yes, Comrade General,» confirmed Sergeyev by radio, leaning his forehead against his hand, and handed the headset to a Syrian officer. «I’m passing you to local men…» he finished tiredly and looked at the captain who was standing by his side. On the other side he heard Arabic speech. The local colonel spoke again with his commanders in Latakia. He often repeated «Naam» — «yes» — and nodded his head. Captain Nechyporenko stood still nearby with a question on his face.
«We should get guns,» Sergeyev said briefly and sternly. «Our mission has changed dramatically. Now they will agree and tell us how to interact in more detail,» he nodded toward the Syrian soldiers, who were sitting at the old antediluvian devices resembling encryption machines.
At the same time on the other side of Syria, on the shore of the Mediterranean, the Commander and General Zakharov again pondered all embodiments of the mission entrusted to them by the General Staff after a short message from «the chief». He asked for «help by any means» in order to rescue the downed American pilot. Both generals understood that the successful implementation of this mission would help him solve certain political goals. Just two days ago the Americans refused to organize a joint rescue group and yet, here it is! What a coincidence! Their pilot was shot down and there seemed to be no one to rescue him.
However, sending Russian jets and helicopters, in particular, was very dangerous and illegal. After receiving information about shots from houses in Raqqa that morning, Russian storm troopers brought a recording with two shots of missiles on the aircrafts. The missiles missed them by about half a kilometer. In the afternoon Syrian intelligence agents confirmed that the terrorists got «FS-6» models of Chinese MANPADS. Now all the helicopters, especially those two in the Deir-ez-Zor, were in danger, but there was still a hope that they would have time to quickly reach the crash site of the US aircraft and rescue the pilot. The hope was that the terrorists will be waiting for the Americans from Northern Turkey, rather than from the south, where the Syrian brigade was surrounded in Deir-ez-Zor. But telling lieutenant-colonel Sergeyev about it plaintext on the radio meant reducing all efforts to zero. Encryption was not useful either. It could be picked up. However, there was no alternative. The only thing left to hope for was that the terrorists would not have time to decrypt the message quickly and Sergeyev’s group would have time to come back safe and sound.
When an hour later he was given a small piece of paper with Arabic script, Sergeyev leaned back in his chair and began to read carefully. He could hear gunfire, single shots and rare, booming explosions of shells in the north. There was a routine check of the enemy’s perimeter «who is where?» When he finished reading, he tore the paper into small pieces and threw them on the floor.
«No shredder. So we’re destroying it the old way!» he smiled sadly noticing captain Nechyporenko’s puzzled look. «The mission’s as follows: we take our guys and fly in the direction of Raqqa. There was an American jet shot down near the mountains. We need to find the pilot. We will have twenty men and weapons,» taking note of the doubt on the face of the captain he added: «We have to depart now to get there before night,» he said almost everything that he had read except the warning about Chinese MANPADS. He was confident that the terrorists would be waiting for the Americans instead of them.
«And how did they shoot it down?» asked the captain.
«Uh… well, „our younger brothers“ from a far yellow country helped a bit. They managed to successfully copy „FS-6“ MANPADS and sold them to the terrorists,» he nodded toward the window referring to the enemy.
«Really?» Nechyporenko was surprised but then he sighed and added: «Ivanych, so, if you’re joking, it’s not that bad then?» he asked hopefully.
«Who knows! I don’t want to evoke evil but my heart is restless,» Sergeyev said sincerely and this recognition made the captain grimace.
«Well, that’s not inspiring,» he said with a sigh. «And what about those „TV-jokers“? They’ll stay alone. They might be bombed or shot occasionally during firing. It’s not Latakia over here,» this question concerned the reporters.
«Gotta leave them to the local guys. They’ve got a few people who graduated from our academies. They speak Russian. So they’ll look after them, I hope. Lets’ go!» the lieutenant-colonel nodded when he saw that the Syrian leader had ended the conversation. «We have to see what weapons they have here. I would prefer «Kalashnikovs» and «Makarovs», he muttered to himself.
«Kalashnikovs» were available but pistols, alas, were not. There were Italian «Berettas» and a lot of ammunition available for them. They could take as much as they could carry. Helicopters were empty, so the «heavy» people were safe to fly.
«Not so many. What else can we take?» the captain Nechyporenko asked Sergeyev, filling the second bag with magazines. «Our guys can’t shoot. They are all drivers and typesetters for publishing, technology support staff, you know,» he said, with a vexed and disappointed voice and Sergeyev immediately made a decision.
«We’ll take only „Kalashnikovs“ then! And maximum cartridges. Let them sit and load magazines until they drop. We’ve got time. Also we’ll need water. That’s all, nothing else.»
«You’re that serious, I thought you’d order a cannon,» the captain tried to smile.
«Are you kidding? I would take a cannon, but there’s not a good one to take. They do not have a damn thing here. No grenades and grenade launchers. Okay, let’s be serious. Time to talk to our guys. What nicknames do they have?»
«What?» Nechyporenko’s eyes widened and several cartridges slipped out of his hands rolling on the floor. «Nicknames? Who?»
«Yes, their nicknames. Start with them first,» the lieutenant-colonel nodded at the soldiers.
«Hey, private Mustafin!» Nechyporenko called one of the soldiers. The young private looked up from the magazine. «The lieutenant-colonel wonders what nicknames you have. Tell him!»
«My nick is Mustafa,» replied the soldier, calmly.
«Well. It’s okay,» said Sergeyev. «All together, repeat his new name out loud ten times: Mustafa!» after the surprised soldiers complied with the order jangling discords, followed from others:
«Tolik Safonov’s is «Safon.»
«It doesn’t work. He’ll be Safar. Got it»? All recite ten times: Safar! Call him only this name from now on!»
«Pyriev Sergey’s is „Pyrchik“».
«It doesn’t work either. He’ll be Abgar. Is that clear? Say it again ten times: Abgar!»
«Edik Tsyba is called „Donut“. He’s a bit stout».
«Hmm… He’ll be Abubakr. Say it again aloud: Abubakr!»
«Isa Alarzoyev ’s name is Isa. What else could it be?» private Ravvil Mustafin shrugged.
«He’ll be Rayis,» concluded the lieutenant-colonel. «Altogether say it: Rayis!» when it was over, he asked: «What’s the captain’s nickname?»
«Me? Why me?» said surprised Nechyporenko.
«Wait! Mustafa, how do you choose a nickname for you commander?» interrupted Sergeyev.
«Sayid…» replied the private quietly and lowered his head to hide a smile.
«Why?» the lieutenant-colonel smiled too.
«He resembles Sayid from White Sun of the Desert,» the newfound Abgar helped his friend.
«Okay. And mine?» Sergeyev saw them all just looking at each other and keeping silent. «Well, why are you silent? I also have to change my name. Speak!»
«You know, we call you by name, no change,» said again Abgar, who apparently was the bravest of them.
«Got it. Then you’ll call me Saraga instead of Sergeyev. Got it? Repeat out loud ten times: Saraga!» When they all finished talking, he knocked on the cartridge box and added: «Now listen carefully: we’ve got no names, no surnames. Only the new nicknames. Now we’re going to repeat them a hundred times more to memorize them. But before that, listen to what the mission is: it is necessary to find a downed pilot and bring him back. If we find him quickly, we’ll come back to the helicopters and fly here to „TV-jokers“ to help them carry their shit. If not, we’ll have to spend some time over there. Therefore, we call each other only our new names. Do I make myself clear?»
«Yes, you do!» a discordant chorus echoed in the large hangar. Sergeyev noticed that none of them said «Right you are’. The guys were tense.
«Okay, go ahead. When we’re back, we will all continue to use these new names before returning to main base in Latakia. There’s no need to blow our cover. The „TV-jokers“ shouldn’t know your real names either. I hope it is clear. Now is the most difficult thing what should we do, if we get stuck in there. Things happen. These radio-sets will be enough for five hours, no longer, so keep your distance, stay in sight, don’t go farther than a hundred paces. After five hours we’ll have to go, even if we do not find the pilot. And the last option is just a contingency.»
«Force majeure or a hell of a mess, so to speak», added Captain Nechyporenko but nobody smiled.
«You may say so,» agreed Sergeyev. So, if we are there without helicopters and any support, the third option comes into effect — we’ll have to return to the city on our own. It’s around a hundred kilometers. So, it’ll take a couple of nights to get here. That’s all. Any questions?»
The soldiers stared blankly at their magazines trying to insert cartridges with disobedient fingers.
«I have a question,» asked the captain. «Are they gonna feed us before departure or shall we arrange barbecue upon arrival over there?»
«Keep calm, don’t show off! It’s not the right time for jokes,» sighed Sergeyev. «They’ll feed us before departure. There will be no food at the site.»
«Of course, there won’t,» grinned Nechyporenko. He couldn’t help joking.
«If someone refuses to go, I won’t compel them to. You’ll just wait for the others coming back here. Remember, if you have questions or other issues, I’m always here. Ask me at any time.»
No one refused; there were no more questions. Before boarding they only managed to collect all the ammunition and eat Syrian combat rations because a sort of soup made in a big kitchen truck looked suspicious. Sergeyev did not want to take risks and eat the local hodgepodge fearing for their stomachs. So far everything went according to the plan and no one was worried. He had to just go to the helicopters and talk to the pilots. He formed that good habit of double-checking the equipment after two failed flights in Yemen. After he miraculously survived, Sergeyev started talking to the pilots and listening to the noise of the engine, as if it was a living organism, every time before boarding trying to catch the slightest strange or unusual sounds in its work. This time, everything was alright. Pilots as usual relied on the power of their god and repeated «in sha’a alla» — «with Allah’s help» — after which he amused them by saying: «Kullutamam fi ilamam, kullu hara min alvar» — «all good things to come, all bad things have gone». Then he banged his palm on the metal board keeping his fingers crossed and went for the captain and his soldiers.
When three points appeared in the sky high above the hill, Harry nearly cried. Several hours had passed and he badly wanted to relieve his bladder. But fear did not let him do that. He saw paratroopers jumping one by one from the planes and heard the terrorists get to their feet at the bottom and begin to shout loudly. They did not shoot from MANPADS but were terribly excited and even fired a few short bursts at the jets in the sky. After some time, their voices started moving away from the rock and Harry decided to raise his head an inch to assess the situation. When his eyes were at the first crack, in front of him opened an incredible picture: almost all the terrorists left the scene of the crash site and headed towards his parachute. They finally saw white cloth and it apparently made a great impression on them. At least, Harry saw them waving their arms and twitching silk and cords. But they were acting weirdly, as if they were not going to fight with the paratroopers. Raising his eyes up, Harry saw that there were big boxes instead of rescue team. It was a pallet drop intending to divert fighter’s attention from him. At this point, the last few people left the hill and walked briskly to the place where the parcels were about to land.
Harry unzipped his suit with trembling hands and rolled to one side so as to direct the stream downwards, between the stones. With every second, he felt easier, tears welled up in his eyes and involuntarily started flowing down his face.
«Carol, dear, if you could see me now, it’s unlikey you’d be that happy,» he said in his heart to his lover calling it the second letter from hell. «I never knew that the worst torture was to endure a full bladder. Yes, it sounds silly but it’s an incredible pain, I sweated, suffered, gritted my teeth and almost fainted. I was constantly sick. It was terrible. I suffered to make sure those barbarians didn’t notice a trickle of urine on the surface of the rock! You won’t believe it, but it’s true. I really want to survive. It sounds strange, I know. So stupid and simple. I want to come back to you and stay with you forever, I want to forget this horror and never recollect it. My words might sound disgusting, I know. But I feel incredibly easy. They’ve run away and I’ve just emptied all of my „fuel tank“ where they were sitting just a couple minutes ago. Our troops dropped boxes by parachutes, but I do not know why. If there is my salvation in them, it is stupid. I can’t even get close to them. They only diverted the bandits’ attention from the hill…» Here the letter was suddenly interrupted because his trained brain got a random tip and immediately made a decision: diverting attention, enabling to help, encouraging to act. While Harry was hiding the pistol, his head looked the other way. The sun had to go down to the horizon soon and then darkness would come. Three airplanes continued to hang over him in the sky, as if they were waiting for a signal. They were obviously looking for him! They needed him to give a sign. But how? A shot towards the sky? His brain was frantically looking for a solution, but he had neither a rocket launcher nor a spare tracker, unfortunately.
At this time, there was the noise of an engine on the other side of the hill. Harry crawled to the edge and looked down. He could see the familiar silhouettes of Toyota pickups down there. Damn, the decision was so easy! Go by car!
He could not remember how he climbed down from the cliff and began to move down the slope hiding behind the rocks. It was far from running or even jogging, it was more a frightened turtle race that he called this rescue leap. The nearest pickup was no more than twenty meters walk away from him when three men appeared. By bad fortune they came up to the hood and began to discuss something whilst glancing at the sky. The planes were still up there. So, he was sure the pilots were waiting for his signal. Harry felt nervous. He could wait for a short while, but not very long. Worst of all was the fact that he had no concept of time. Seconds seemed to him hours, and this felt like panic. In this situation, he could take only one decision — take advantage surprise the enemy and attack first.
He bent and unbent his fingers — they were moving freely as if it was just an exercise. His arms and legs were not trembling. Breathing was calm. His thumb slowly unlocked the trigger lock and he fed a cartridge into the chamber. The only thing left for him to do now was to stand up and do what he had to do.
Harry quietly crawled around the stone, stood up, stretched out his arm forward, and took the first step. Through narrowed eyes, he saw the muzzle-sight overlapping the first target and pulled the trigger. Recoil habitually pushed his hand and went into his shoulder. A second bullet followed the first one and the third found the second victim in mid-stride from the fallen first. At this point, the signal from the eye went to his brain and Harry realized that he could see only two bodies. The third was not there! On the move by inertia he put two more bullets into the second terrorist, later thinking that it was unnecessary. He had to conserve ammo. Squatting by the bumper he quickly examined the dead and then looked out of the hood. The third bandit turned out to be smart. He had seemingly departed in one of the cars. When he heard the shots, he did not want to risk his life, so quickly jumped into the truck and hit the gas. Harry had nothing to do but follow him with his eyes: a cloud of dust was rapidly moving along the hill, heading most likely to the place where he could drive around it and be on the other side. The terrorist was in a hurry to flee the rest of the group. Staying here and signaling the jets was dangerous. Harry looked up and saw that the jets disappeared. This wasn’t good news. He had to leave. Later, somewhere on the plain, he could stop and draw a word with wheels in the sand but then he had to hurry.
One of those killed was about his size. Harry quickly pulled off his clothes, pulled them on over his flying suit, took both the guns, six magazines and threw everything on the seat of white Toyota. A thought flashed in his head that terrorists could come back and chase after him on other machines. He quickly went round all pickups and shot the tires. Then he jumped behind the wheel and froze, feeling the hair on the back of his head slowly standing on end. He was looking at the ignition lock and felt that the pressure skyrocketed and his ears were blocked. There was no key.
«Stop! Don’t panic! The keys must be in the other vehicles!» he said to himself. However, he failed to find them neither in the pickups, nor in the corpses’ clothes. Harry again went round the cars hoping that at the very least one of them would have push-button starting but it was in vain. Out of desperation, he stuck his head against the door of white Toyota and began to think what to do. All he could do was wait for the terrorists to come back and battle here on the ground. Maybe satellites would notice that…
He dragged over the boxes from other trucks to this one, checked the gun and fired a test shot. It worked! The burst echoed a little unusually, and the crackle of gunfire grew louder, until it turned into a noise of helicopter blades. Harry was frantically twisting his head, swallowing saliva, and trying to get rid of unpleasant sensation in the ears. When a grey egg-shaped silhouette appeared from behind the rocks, he was prepared to fire. There was no doubt that it had arrived to help terrorists. Judging by the housing, the model was Russian MI-8 or something similar. But Russians didn’t fly here, nor did the Syrians. So who could fly so low being aware of MANPADS? Only them. So it was the terrorist’s helicopter!
Harry pulled the trigger and the first burst headed toward the machine. It seemed to have missed because the helicopter simply turned around and went the other way. But he was spotted! So, they had to return and try to fire missiles. Well, now they would see that he would not give in so easily! These thoughts consoled his pride, though actually he understood that he couldn’t defend against helicopter weapons if it rose above him. The pilots on board acted as if they heard his thoughts and the pot-bellied grey helicopter started slowly climbing, getting closer to the place where there pickup trucks were standing. Harry pressed his cheek to the metal surface of the gun and tried to turn it up. He almost succeeded, when suddenly from the top of a hill, right at the point, where his saving rock towered, a loud shot rang out and a white lane with a terrible black arrow at its tip, headed toward the helicopter. Harry realized that it was a MANPAD but when the missile hit the helicopter, he was terrified: slowly rotating screws, the huge grey machine was falling down right on him! He jumped out of the truck and ran to the side, so not to be in the center of the explosion, when the gas tanks of the cars blew up. Harry ran without seeing that the helicopter that was moving with him and when the heavy machine crashed onto the ground, no more than twenty meters separated them. The last thing he remembered was that ground and dust jumped up underfoot and then followed a loud shuttering explosion, which broke through his ears almost tearing his brain apart. Losing consciousness, Harry saw the flames and a cloud of dust flying towards him. Then his mind turned off.
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