Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
The transport plane, like everything else in Russia, was a piece of shit. For years, mechanics had swapped out its worn scavenged parts with even older parts. Cracks had been filled with epoxy. Leaking tubes and frayed wires had been wrapped with tape. A crash had been inevitable.
A booming noise, like a horseshoe thrown into a dryer, had been coming from the left engine. The pilot had throttled back, but the noise had only gotten worse.
He and the copilot had scanned their instruments, searching for clues, but hadn’t found any. Everything, right down to the cabin pressure, had appeared normal.
But suddenly, the interior had begun filling with smoke. Seconds later, the left engine died, followed by the right.
As the pilot restarted them, an explosion erupted from the right engine. Seeing the exhaust temperature spike, he immediately ordered the copilot to activate the extinguisher. They had to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the aircraft, even if it meant shutting the right engine down permanently.
The copilot pulled the fire extinguisher handle as ordered, but they had another problem. The left engine, which had successfully been restarted, wasn’t producing enough thrust. They were falling at a rate of more than one thousand feet per minute. Over the blaring of cockpit alarms, the pilot put out a distress call.
They were flying in bad weather over one of the most remote, most inhospitable regions in the country. It was unlikely anyone would receive the transmission.
The pilot never got a chance to repeat his Mayday. The avionics and electrical system were next to go.
After trying to get the auxiliary power unit back online, the pilot instructed the crew to prepare for the worst. They were going down. Hard.
All this risk, he thought, all this danger, just to deliver one man—a man chained in back like an animal.
A Russian Special Forces team had boarded him with a hood over his head. No one had seen his face. The entire crew had assumed he was a criminal of some sort; maybe even a terrorist. They had been informed that he was dangerous. Under no circumstances were any of them to speak with or get anywhere near the prisoner.
But that was before they knew the plane was going to crash.
Moving quickly to the rear of the aircraft, the plane’s loadmaster approached the large Spetsnaz soldier sitting nearest the prisoner.
“You need to put an oxygen mask on him,” he said in Russian.
The operative, who already had his mask on, looked at the hooded prisoner, adjusted the submachine gun on his lap, and shook his head.
“Nyet,” he stated. No.
Career Russian Air Force, the loadmaster was used to transporting elite operators. He was also used to their bullshit.
“I’m not asking you,” he replied. “I’m ordering you.”
The soldier shot a sideways glance at the intelligence officer sitting nearby.
The plane was losing altitude. The smoke in the cabin was getting worse. The officer nodded back. Do it.
The ape reached over, snatched off the hood, and affixed a mask over the prisoner’s face. Then he replaced the hood and, satisfied, leaned back in his seat.
“Now unshackle his arms so he can brace for impact,” the loadmaster continued. It enabled only a minor altering of the body’s position, but in a crash it could mean the difference between life and death. Whatever the prisoner had done, surely he didn’t deserve to die, at least not like this.
Pissed off, the soldier glanced over again at the intelligence officer. Once more, the man nodded.
Producing a set of keys, the Spetsnaz operative reached down and opened the padlock securing the prisoner’s handcuffs to his belly chain. Grabbing the man’s arms, he raised them and placed them against the seat in front of him.
“His feet as well,” the loadmaster ordered. “He must be able to rapidly evacuate the aircraft.”
The soldier didn’t need to look to his superior a third time. The intelligence officer answered for their entire team.
“The only way that man walks off this plane is with one of us,” he said from behind his mask.
The loadmaster gave up. He had done what he could and knew it was pointless to argue any further. They were out of time.
“Make sure your weapons are secure,” he directed, as he turned to make his way to his jump seat.
Suddenly, the plane shuddered and the nose pitched forward. The crewman lunged for the nearest seat and buckled himself in as anything not locked down went hurtling through the cabin like a missile.
With no instruments and no visibility, they were flying blind. The pilot and copilot fought to regain control of the aircraft.
Fifteen hundred feet above the ground, the pilots managed to pull the nose back up and slow their descent. But with no thrust from the remaining engine, they were still falling. They had to find someplace to land.
Peering through the weather, the pilot could see they were flying over a dense forest. Ahead was a clearing of some sort. It might have been a field or a frozen lake. All he could tell was that it appeared to be devoid of trees.
“There,” the pilot said.
“There’s not enough length. It’s too short.”
“That’s where we’re landing,” the pilot insisted. “Extend the landing gear. Prepare for impact.”
The copilot obeyed and engaged the emergency landing gear extension system. With no electricity with which to activate the PA, he turned and shouted back into the cabin, “Brace! Brace! Brace!”
The command was acknowledged by the loadmaster, who then yelled over and over in Russian from his seat, “Heads down! Stay down! Heads down! Stay down!”
Only a few hundred feet above the ground, the pilot pulled back on the yoke to lift the aircraft’s nose in an attempt to slow it down, but he misjudged the distance.
The belly of the plane scraped across the tops of the tall snow-laden trees. The left landing gear was snapped off, followed by the right.
Just before the clearing, one of the wingtips was clipped, and the plane went into a violent roll.