Condor – M.L. Buchman

“FAVORİTE AİRPLANE?” “Oh, c’mon, Jeremy, ask a real one. We all know Miranda’s favorite plane,” Holly chided him. “My F-86 Sabrejet,” Miranda answered with an easy certainty that she at least knew this one answer. For twenty years she’d flown the old jet and knew it as well as the back of her hand. She liked its familiarity. Just as she liked the familiarity of this house. She’d grown up here. She knew all its ways. The way the old wood creaked when the Pacific Ocean storms roared over Vancouver Island and slammed into the San Juans. The way the air didn’t smell of the sea, but rather so fresh it seemed as if no one had ever breathed it before. The high-vaulted living room with its beach cobble hearth, dark beams, and Douglas fir walls could seat twenty comfortably, four as it did now, or be cozy for just one as it usually was. It was slightly uncomfortable having visitors to her island, thereby decreasing her favoritism for her house over her jet if one were to expand the parameters to “favorite place at this moment in time.” No, not uncomfortable. Merely…unfamiliar. Yes, that was a better way to think of it.

Even though it was only Friday night and the rest of the chill March weekend loomed uncertainly ahead. Despite the new descriptor, she remained uncertain of her preparations to entertain them. “Ehhhh!” Holly made a rude sound like a plane’s stall-warning buzzer. “So not on, Miranda. It’s not your Sabrejet.” Holly’s Australian accent was even thicker than usual as she sipped her second beer of the evening. Before Miranda could respond that she knew her own mind—which she wasn’t always sure of, though she was this time—Jeremy raised his hand. “Wait! I know. I know!” “Don’t have to raise your hand, buddy.” Mike winked at Miranda from his armchair near the fire.

He sat as neatly as ever—a slim, elegant man with short dark hair, a dress shirt, and custom-tailored slacks. Miranda sat on the sofa with Holly. Actually, she sat on the sofa whereas Holly slouched so low she was almost horizontal—her feet on the coffee table, sticking her toes out toward the fire. Her socks didn’t match. “It’s any plane that hasn’t crashed,” Jeremy proudly announced his answer. While the others laughed and nodded, Miranda considered. The four of them were the lead crash investigation team for the National Transportation Safety Board. Yes, any plane that was fully functional was a very good thing. But still, she liked her old Sabrejet very much. “Jeremy’s favorite site investigation tool?” Mike called out.

Holly giggled. Miranda had no idea why. Holly whispered to her, “Can you figure him picking out a single favorite tool?” “Oh,” Miranda understood the joke now but had learned that laughs that came too late were better not laughed at all. Jeremy always had a bigger field pack than the other three of them combined. “That handheld military-grade thermite torch he used to slice evidence out of the old DC-3’s wreckage,” was Miranda’s estimation. He had been particularly enamored of its ability to melt quickly through steel though it was no bigger than a two-D-cell flashlight. “His hammer,” Holly suggested. “The one he actually offered to that colonel who wanted to bust up his phone for constantly giving him bad news of more planes that had carked it.” Jeremy Trahn blushed brightly enough that it could be seen by the firelight. “No, his program for reading Cockpit Voice and Data Recorders, even if he isn’t supposed to have one.

He secretly wishes he was James Bond,” Mike ribbed him. “No,” Holly shook her head hard enough to flutter her rough-cut blonde hair over her shoulders. “He wishes he was Q, Bond’s equipment geek.” “No,” Jeremy spoke up a little hotly, “but he wishes you both had fallen into the ocean and been eaten by orcas on the way here.” “You’d have been fish food right along with us.” Mike accurately pointed out. He had flown the three of them out to her island in Washington State’s northern Puget Sound for the weekend. Holly was the one who’d suggested the spring solstice was a good excuse for a party. Though this March was chilly enough that “spring” didn’t come easily off the tongue yet. “Whale food,” Jeremy corrected, then mumbled, “Would’ve been worth it.

” There was a brief silence in which the only sound was logs shifting in the fireplace. Miranda watched the curious turbulence patterns as the sparks rose up the chimney. “What is your favorite tool, Jeremy?” Because now she was curious. He looked down, and she was afraid that she’d somehow embarrassed him even further than Mike and Holly had. Then he reached for his shirt pocket and pulled out a pen. “A pen, mate? Fair dinkum?” Holly turned to Mike. “Have you ever seen him even use a pen? Everything in the world is on his tablet.” Mike just shook his head. Miranda could remember three instances. They’d been together as a team for almost six months, yet three was all she could recall.

“You gave it to me on the first day I joined your team. It’s everything I ever dreamed of.” “Miranda’s pen?” Mike scoffed. “Being on Miranda’s team,” Jeremy said softly. Holly, who never looked touched, looked touched. She turned to Miranda. “He’s so damn sweet,” she whispered, but loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Can we keep him?” Miranda didn’t know why she wouldn’t. He was an exceptional airplane systems specialist despite his youth. “Holly’s favorite soccer team?” Mike asked in a sudden, bright tone, completely changing the mood.

“The Australian Matildas,” they all called out in unison. Their four Matildas baseball hats were all lined up on the mantel. This time Miranda was fairly sure that her timing was right when she joined in on the laughter. Helsinki Airport, Finland 11 hours earlier (10 p.m. Eastern European Standard Time) CAPTAİN DMİTRİ VOSKOV hunched against the March chill and wished he was anywhere else. No matter where he shifted, the hard-blown ice pellets, which only looked like a light snow flurry, kept stinging his frozen cheeks as if he was being shot by a porcupine-quill gun. Instead, all he could do was try to stay out of the wind and watch as his plane was loaded—the heavyweight champ for cargo hauling. Known as “Condor” in the west, his Ukrainian Antonov AN-124-200 Ruslan could carry up to a hundred and sixty-five tons in a single load. Its lone big brother, the AN-225 Mriya “Cossack” didn’t really count as there had only ever been one in existence.

For dinner, he’d gone to the restaurant along the Helsinki Airport cargo road for a change of pace from their own onboard cooking. The smell—like week-old cooked cabbage—should have warned him, but he’d been hungry and cold enough to go in anyway. The meat soup could have been century-old reindeer hide—it had certainly tasted like it—and the waitress had been a dour battleax. Not even any fun flirting to break up the monotony. At least there was no deadhead this time. As a specialized cargo-hauler-for-hire, too often they flew empty from a delivery to the next pickup. Here in Finland, they’d dropped off a geothermal power generator built by the Brits and were picking up a load of Russian helicopters—helicopters that defecting Russian pilots had delivered into Finnish hands. No surprise that the Finns were handing them over to the Americans, so greedy for examples of Russian technology. He hoped that they’d gotten the better of the Yankees in whatever trade deal they’d worked out. His real mistake was delaying at the restaurant too long over scorched coffee and the last slice of Brita-kakku pie, which was even worse than it sounded.

The fluffy layers supposedly soaked in light cream were like sludge soaked in white grease. The loadmasters had started the loading while he’d been at dinner. Now, it was near midnight, his gut was roiling with the heavy meal, and he couldn’t get to the cockpit. Much of the Condor’s design had been taken from the American’s C-5 Galaxy, but made bigger. Dmitri rubbed his hands together to no effect, then jammed them back into his pockets. he just wished the designers had provided flight deck access during loading. The four-engine cargo jet was a massive open tube. At the rear, a ramp folded down from behind towering clamshell doors. In front, the nose swung up like a king-sized garage door to expose the front ramp. The Condor could even kneel—lowering its front landing gear to facilitate drive-on loading.

However, during loading, the stair up to his cockpit home was cut off. That left him to stand in the biting cold and watch his loadmasters do all the work. All he could do was look longingly up at the nice warm living area four stories above him. He should be kicked back on his bunk, sleeping or watching a Scarlett Johansson movie (he had every one of them, at least all the ones she was blonde in, and most of Jennifer Lawrence’s, even The Hunger Games when she wasn’t blonde). “How much longer, Portnov?” “You whine too much, Captain.” “Fine. When we’re done, I’ll just leave you here to freeze your ass off.” “Then who would unload your helicopters in America?” Portnov slapped him on the back and returned to loading the next helo into the Condor. A painfully slow process even with two of the best loadmasters in the business running the loading team. Of course, the least gouge in his hull could ground them for a week.

And if everything wasn’t perfectly balanced fore and aft, he’d crash on takeoff. Dmitri paced back and forth because it was that or die cold in Helsinki, which sounded like a bad movie that he wanted no role in. He was always amazed at the volume Portnov managed to move in and out of their plane. Somehow it looked so effortless when Portnov was the senior loadmaster. Damn but this took longer than a Ukrainian spring. With its nose raised, his plane looked like a whale’s maw gobbling up anything they fed it. He glared across the field at the now darkened restaurant along the cargo road. She was long gone, but right now even that dour battleax looked like a better option than this. Helsinki Airport 23 minutes later ELAYNE KASPRAK, her most commonly used name, had watched the whole operation since the Antonov AN-124 had landed before she’d decided on her approach. It was the return of the captain—conveniently unable to retreat to his flight deck—that gave her the solution to boarding the aircraft.

It had taken less than five minutes to liberate an airport security car from the Helsinki motor pool. Acquiring a uniform had been harder. Finding a real guard who was small enough that she wouldn’t look ridiculous in his uniform had taken almost twenty minutes. She hoped that the guard woke up before he froze to death in just his long underwear— the one bit of attire she hadn’t needed. If he didn’t, that was his problem. On her return, the captain was still there, trying to huddle out of the wind and not even pretending he was in charge. Perfect. She parked her clearly marked vehicle close, but not too close. Visible, but in the shadows. Elayne planned her walk carefully.

Casual, friendly. Not some sexy slink. Just a cop on patrol…and just as bored as you. Bored enough to just hang out and watch a mundane loading process. “Hyvää iltaa,” she wished him a good evening in Finnish. “Tak?” Ukrainian. She was fluent in Ukrainian, and very conversant in six other languages, but he’d know that her Ukrainian accent was too Russian. With the tensions there, she didn’t want to arouse suspicions. “Good evening?” she asked in intentionally awkward English. “Ah! Good evening.

” He finally focused on her face and most of his shivering went away. Elayne knew why she’d originally been recruited by the SVR. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service needed beautiful spies, especially ones petite enough to appear completely unthreatening, even if she’d proven time and again that she could take down nine out of ten men courtesy of her Spetsnaz colonel father’s years of tutelage. But she’d also been raised by a submarine engineer mother. With her own degree in aviation engineering—Elayne’s original life’s plan—her assets had proven attractive to the SVR, and more than just the physical. She’d quickly found her niche as a military aviation specialist for the foreign intelligence service. It hadn’t taken her very long to ascend to the operations directorate. A brief tussle for her between the S (illegal intelligence) and X (scientific) Directorates had been resolved by Zaslon quietly recruiting her while the others argued. No one questioned the most secret and elite black-ops team in the entire Russian Federation. Now, eight years as a Zaslon agent-saboteur, she drew a steady chain of challenging solo assignments.

Not that the Antonov captain looked to be particularly challenging. “Good evening,” he said in a much warmer tone as he stood straight and squared his shoulders. “Slow loadings?” She nodded toward his plane. “Damned slow. Made the mistake of going to the café down the road rather than hiding in my bunk.” “Tell that you did not the eating of Madame’s meat soup?” She had watched him do precisely that. At his expected groan, she laughed sympathetically. “If you walk three more roads…streets?…there very good steak.” He groaned more dramatically, “I didn’t need to know that.” His English was almost as good as hers actually was.

Better to let him think she was struggling to keep up with him. She removed her hat. After all, Helsinki was tropical compared to where she’d grown up at Polyarny submarine base, three hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Her long, white-blonde hair fell loose over her stolen parka’s shoulders. Truth be told, she was missing the guard’s long underwear at the moment as the Finnish night wind was quite bitter. Elayne paid attention to the six helicopters being loaded. It gave the captain time to look his fill. She was glad that it wasn’t her job to hunt down the pilots who had betrayed the Motherland by defecting and delivering these to the West. She’d castrate them slowly, then make them cook and eat their own balls before she cauterized the excision point with a blowtorch. There was a hard metal-on-metal bang from inside the Condor.

By the lights inside the cargo bay, she could see that it was just one of the loaders cursing at a freezing cold pry bar he’d dropped on the deck while tightening a chain. No damage, but the sound had echoed and been reinforced so that it seemed to blast out into the darkness. Her own breath was clouding so thickly that it was blurring her view. But not enough to hide what was in the cargo bay. A Kamov “Helix” that looked to have all of its Airborne Early Warning system’s electronics still intact. Two Kamov “Alligator” attack helos. One of the brand-new Kazan Ansat multi-role birds. A monstrous Mi-17 gunship that shouldn’t fit inside any aircraft, at least nothing less than the Antonov. And the last was the true prize, an Mi-28NM “Havoc”—newly upgraded and with all of its armament intact. Castration was too kind for the bastard-pilot who’d stolen that aircraft.

It was an incredible intelligence haul. “Sorry, Captain.” “What?” Elayne remembered herself. “Sorry that you must stand out of sides in such colds.” And sorry for you that you were assigned to carry the wrong cargo. Not your fault, but that doesn’t change the bad things coming your way. “Would you like to warm up in my automotobile?” She made the offer. “That would be most good. Thank you.” Very nice, she corrected him in her thoughts.

Not challenging at all. As she’d left the heater on high, they both soon shed their jackets as planned. He wasn’t the handsomest man, but he clearly worked hard to stay in shape. Seducing him there in the shadows of her stolen but warm car was laughably easy. And surprisingly good—once his hands warmed up. He was a skilled lover, better than any she’d had in a long time. Best of all, if everything went as planned, there would be no loose ends to worry about—ever. Fort Campbell, Kentucky (final approach) 1 hour ago (11 p.m. Central Standard Time) DMİTRİ VOSKOV LİNED up with the approach vector into Fort Campbell and daydreamed of what wonders awaited him in Kentucky.

The load of Russian helicopters would go to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. SOAR was the US Army’s secret helicopter regiment and no concern of his. Kentucky though… It wasn’t the land of petite Scandinavian white-blondes, but he’d been in the American South enough to appreciate the seriously built gold-blondes as well—even when it was dyed. No one would match the Helsinki Airport security officer who wore nothing under her uniform. That would be asking too much. But she’d left him with plenty to dream about. She’d also left him a phone number and first name—Valery. Valery, a female name in the West and a male name in Russia; it fit her strength well. She had the finest body he’d been invited to plunder since a fiery Irish redhead on a layover in Shannon, Ireland, three years before. While finishing the tie-downs and double checks, Portnov had lowered the cockpit stairway and Dmitri had given Valery a tour upstairs.

Bunks near the back of the compartment—just ahead of the wings. Enough for the two loadmasters and the four-man flight crew to live in comfortably. The Antonov was their home most days of the year. A small lounge, bathroom, and a decent kitchen. They’d tiptoed through as the rest of his flight crew were snoring away in their bunks. Normally, he’d be ticked that they’d been so comfortable while he’d been trapped outside, but he had just spent a very, very friendly hour steaming up a car’s windows with an exceptionally flexible officer. In the cockpit, he gave her the full tour and grabbed a couple of nice feels. He’d spent most of the evening wishing Portnov would hurry up. Standing in the cockpit with Valery, he wished the man would screw up and ground them here for a week. “May I use bathing room?” “You know the way.

Don’t worry about waking the other guys; you could drop a nuclear bomb and they would sleep through it.” On her return, Valery had asked in that charming mangled-English of hers as she closed the cockpit door, “Does these doors lock?” He’d reached across her, latched it, and tried to take her right up against the surface. Instead, she’d guided him to the pilot’s chair. Sliding it to the back of the stops, there was just room for her to straddle him once she stripped. Over Valery’s bare shoulder and out the windshield, he’d caught Portnov looking up in surprise from the ground four stories below, then grinning. Plenty to grin about here. The only thing more amazing than her hair, face, and breasts had been what she could do with her hips. She would start a motion somewhere deep inside that built in a slow gyration to— The radio hauled him back to the present. “Antonov, this is Campbell Army Airfield. You’re cleared to land Runway 23.

Winds light and variable. Barometer two-niner-ninerfive.” “Roger, Tower. I have the ILS.” Everything looked good. Everything. Including the updated schedule from the home office that said they’d be back in Helsinki in just three weeks. The first moment he was on the ground, he’d text Valery with the good news. He rode the big plane down the glide slope into the darkness. They’d flown west all night—a rough ride north of the Azores, but nothing unusual.

Here in Kentucky, it was still before sunrise under crystal clear skies. Dmitri barely needed the Instrument Landing System; the runway was properly lit and clear despite the busy American Army base wrapped around it. Fort Campbell had plenty of runway, but he still placed the main gear on the pavement in the first five hundred feet. Nose gear down at a thousand. It would be good to get out of the cockpit and stretch. He might not even go barhopping. Maybe he’d just hit his bunk, think about Valery, and count the days until they were back in Finland. WHEN CAPTAİN DMİTRİ VOSKOV pulled back to engage the thrust reversers on the four brand-new GE CF-6 engines, a hidden microswitch was engaged. It had been placed by SVR Zaslon Major Elayne Kasprak as Dmitri had buried his face in her breasts—so skilled with his tongue that she’d almost missed the proper placement. But the switch was in the correct location and was now pressed by the control lever.

The switch turned on a tiny transmitter that sent a signal to a receiver she’d placed fifty feet behind the cockpit. Elayne Kasprak had hidden it beneath the rearmost bunk while ducking out of the cockpit to supposedly use the bathroom. The receiver was attached to a detonator. The detonator had been rammed into the heart of a shaped charge of C-4 explosive. The device—called a Krakatoa and originally designed for the British SAS, which she’d picked up from a UK munitions plant to avoid it being traced back to her—was no bigger than a fat beer can. That had made it easy to hide in her security officer’s parka coat. The two kilos of C-4 plastique exploded. The copper bullet formed by the device could punch a double-fist-sized hole through a warship’s armor plate at twenty-five meters. At two meters, it punched a half-meter-wide hole through the crew cabin’s thin rear pressure wall and the central wing fuel tank close behind it. As a by-blow, it also turned the bottom of Loadmaster Portnov’s bunk into a thousand pieces of shrapnel.

His body was shredded—along with the Playboy Polska magazine he’d picked up in Warsaw last week, and had been using as a visual aid while he imagined Dmitri’s blonde going down on him. The sound had been muffled by the sleeping room door—now blown off its hinges— and the closed cockpit security door. In the cockpit, twenty meters forward, it was no louder than a blown tire on the main gear. “Shit!” Dmitri checked the indicators, but no red warning lights. Hopefully not a brake fire or a broken wheel axle. Please let it just be the rubber. An Antonov was a rare enough bird that they carried their own spares, but they couldn’t carry everything. With twenty main gear tires and four nose gear ones, and two stashed in the hold, he could lose one with few worries. The central wing tank had been run mostly dry during flight. Now it was filled with a shallow pool of Jet A fuel and nitrogen that had been pumped in as the tank emptied to decrease the chance of fire.

The blast of the Krakatoa not only heated the remaining fuel above the ignition point, but the hole it created allowed oxygen to rush into the breached tank. A small windstorm sucked various detritus into the breached tank. Four seconds after the initial detonation, their speed was down to a hundred knots. The massive plane wasn’t pulling to either side, so Dmitri decided the problem might not be too terrible; probably just a flat tire rather than a frozen axle. Two thousand feet of runway gone, eight thousand still clear ahead. Under normal operations, the Antonov would need only a thousand more feet before turning off onto a taxiway—for all their size, helicopters didn’t weigh much, less than a third of the Condor’s load capability though they had filled every square meter of deck space. At five seconds, a fireball followed the stream of oxygen and flashed back through the original penetration in the tank and the cabin’s rear bulkhead. Portnov’s bunk had collapsed to partially block the hole. The blockage only lasted a few hundredths of a second against the monstrous pressure wave. It ignited the entire crew cabin and killed the other loadmaster, filling his lungs with fire when he breathed in to scream.

Other than a sudden inward bulging of the closed cockpit door, the active flight crew, including Captain Dmitri Voskov, remained unaware of what was happening behind them. The copilot had opened his small side window to smell the fresh Kentucky air—splendidly warm and lush in the mid-March night—so their ears didn’t even pop at the sudden overpressure. Seven seconds after the initial blast, the mounting explosion’s pressure wave inside the fuel tank exceeded critical rupture. Both of the central tanks’ side seams failed at a hundred and thirty-seven percent of design maximum. Steel shrapnel from the shredded central tank blew through the wing tanks to either side, spilling the three thousand remaining gallons of reserve Jet A fuel into the wing structure. From there, it cascaded down onto the runway through mechanical openings for flaps and landing gear. At nine seconds past ignition of the Krakatoa, both wings exploded internally. Bits of fuel tank and wing covering were blown so high that the last of them didn’t return to the ground until well after the rest of the plane was destroyed. The flash lit the darkness. The emergency response teams, woken by the blast, were on the move before the control tower could even sound the alarm.

If the wings had broken free, the fuselage might have survived. Still marginally attached, they kept spilling fuel and feeding the fire along either side of the plane, turning the fuselage into a furnace that was still being cooked from the inside by the burning of the fuel dumped from the central tank over the helicopters in the cargo bay. Captain Dmitri Voskov’s final act fully damned the aircraft. He stood hard on the brakes for an emergency stop. They worked. All twenty-four wheels locked hard, leaving ten-meter stripes of black rubber on the runway that would be visible for years. The Antonov AN-124-200 Condor squatted in the middle of its own inferno and burned. Directly below the cockpit and crew area, the armament on the Mil Mi-28NM Havoc helicopter heated past critical. An Ataka-V anti-tank missile was the first to go. The blast ignited the three other missiles in the rack as well as the five smaller weapons in the S-13 rocket pod.

These in turn triggered the Product 305 air-to-air missile that the West was very eager to inspect for the first time. The navigator and flight engineer died instantly from the impact of the multi-headed explosion against the bottom of the crew section. No one heard the copilot’s scream. Instinct had him reaching for escape through his small side window when the force of the explosion severed his arm against the sill. The combined blast was sufficient to separate the already weakened connection between the crew section and the wing assemblies. As the sides of the hull blew outward, the cockpit and living quarters were blown upward as a unit. Because its attachment at the nose held longer than at the wing, the rear end of the twenty-meter-long assembly arced skyward, trying to fly one last time before breaking free and landing on its back ahead of the fire. The inverted cockpit assembly now lay on Runway 23 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, clear of the shattered fuselage and its raging heat. Its escape from the fire didn’t matter. The final slam of the cockpit section onto the runway had killed the last survivor.

It snapped pilot Dmitri Voskov’s neck as neatly as if Major Elayne Kasprak had done it herself. She always got her man.

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