Authors: Craig Thomas
My thanks, especially on this occasion, to my wife, Jill, for her editing of the manuscript, and for bullying and cajoling me through the writing process! Thanks, too, to T. R. Jones, for acting as my technical adviser.
Acknowledgement must also be made to Faber & Faber Ltd for permission to quote from
Hawk Roosting by
The quotation from
Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost is reproduced by kind permission of Jonathan Cape and Holt, Rinehart & Winston, on behalf of the estate of Robert Frost, and comes from the collection
edited by Edward Connery Latham.
One of the perils of writing a sequel, especially to a novel which I originally completed early in 1975, is the very passage of time. The present novel takes tip the story of Mitchell Gant and the MiG-31 at precisely the point where its predecessor left them. One of the principal characters of the earlier novel was Yuri Andropov, then Chairman of the Soviet intelligence service and secret police, the KGB. Events have overtaken me, since that gentleman is now, following the demise of Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union. For the sake of continuity, I have had to keep him in his former job. However, I shall always think of him, in company, no doubt, with millions of Soviet citizens, as the head of the most powerful and repressive secret police force the modern world has ever experienced.
I think I know enough of hateONE:
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
-Robert Frost: Fire and Ice
The Firefox crossed the Norwegian coast eighty thousand feet above the Tanafjord. The on-board computer issued instructions to the auto-pilot for the first predetermined change of course. The aircraft banked. Mitchell Gant watched the curve of the earth far below him tilt and then reassert itself. Above him, the sky darkened almost to black. It was empty. He was entirely alone.
Beginning to relax…
The shower of turning, bright, sun-caught metal leaves, falling out of the tumult of smoke that a moment earlier had been the second Firefox, returned to flash upon a screen at the back of his mind. A white ball of flame, then erupting, boiling black smoke, then the spiralling, falling pieces, then the empty clean sky.
Nausea diminishing, almost gone. Hands almost not shaking now as they rested on his thighs. Left cheek's tic - he waited, counting the seconds - still now.
He had done it. He had won. He was able to form the thoughts with calm, precise, satisfying clarity. He had done it. He had won. And, like an undercurrent, he admitted another idea - he was still alive.
The Firefox banked once more, the scimitar-edge of the earth's surface tilted again, then levelled. The aircraft had begun its complex zig-zag across Finland, en route to its rendezvous with the commercial flight from Stockholm to Heathrow. In the infra-red shadow of the airliner, he would be hidden as he crossed the North Sea to RAF Scampton, where Aubrey the Englishman would be waiting for him with Charlie Buckholz from the CIA. Two men whose orders had placed him in continual danger for the past three days. Two men who had given him…? He let the thought go. He didn't owe them. They owed him.
The congratulations… he wanted those. The unconcealable smiles and gestures of satisfaction, even of surprise and relief. They owed him all of those.
The other faces came back, then, as if to lessen and spoil the moment. Baranovich, Pavel, Semelovsky, Kreshin - Fenton's broken face on the wet embankment of the Moskva river. All of them dead. All of them willingly dead, except for Fenton, simply to put him in physical conjunction with the Firefox.
His hands smoothed the controls, like the hands of a man buying his first new car and expressing his awed sense of ownership. He touched the instrument panel in front of him, he read the Machmeter - Mach 0.9. His speed would remain below Mach 1. He had no wish to trail a betraying sonic boom across Finland. The altimeter displayed 60,000 feet. The Firefox was dropping slowly towards its rendezvous altitude through the dark blue empty sky.
He didn't want to entertain the faces, and they slipped from his mind. It was all becoming unreal; hard to understand that it was no more than three days since he had arrived at Moscow's Cheremetievo airport disguised as Orton the Canadian businessman and suspected drug-trafficker. There was, increasingly, only
, this moment. He owned the moment as he owned the aircraft. The Firefox was his. In perhaps less than two hours he would have to surrender it to others - to men who could never, in a million years, fly it. It would be examined, tested, dismantled, reduced to a hollow shell; finally shipped in crates in the belly of a Hercules across the Atlantic. But now, it was his airplane. In two hours, also, he would begin his own decline, his return to the anonymity, the emptiness of what he had been before Buckholz had resurrected him.
He wanted to cry out against it, for his sake, for the sake of the airplane. Instead, he squashed the thought like a beetle. Not now, not yet -
In the mirror, the sky was dark blue behind him. The cloud-layer was far below him. The curve of the earth fell away on either side of the aircraft. He was utterly detached from the globe beneath. A stream of sparkling diamonds rushed away like the tail of a comet behind the Firefox, like the wake of a swan he had once seen lifting from a lake at evening. Sparkling water…
The aircraft's nose eased round a few degrees as the Firefox automatically altered course once more. The stream of diamond droplets altered with it. Tinker Bell, he thought, remembering the darkened, whispering, escape-from-his-father movie theatre in Clarkville and the petulant sprite and her Disney trail of gleaming dust. His mother always gave him money for the movies saved from her meagre housekeeping, if she knew his father had been drinking, though there was rarely the extra for popcorn. By the time the main feature ended, his father might have fallen into a drunken sleep.
And then he knew. His heart and stomach seemed stunned by a physical blow. Fuel droplets, escaping into the thin cold atmosphere. A broken necklace of fuel droplets -
Frantically he flicked switches, read the gauges and flow-meters, made the calculations with a frozen, horrified sense of urgency. Before he had noticed, before it had dawned on him, the tanks were almost dry. He gripped the control column, but did not move it. It helped to still his shaking hands and forearms. He guessed what must have happened. The fuselage and the tanks had been punctured during the dogfight. Either that or the second Firefox had ruptured one of the fuel-lines with cannon fire. Even one of the falling metal leaves from the exploding aircraft might have done it.
He knew that he would never make landfall in England. Perhaps not even in Norway. A safe landing? Perhaps nowhere. The calculations were horrifyingly simple. At his present speed, he had less than twenty-five minutes' flying time left. Much less, because of the fuel he was still losing. The rate of loss he could not accurately measure. He could not stop it. Twenty-five minutes…? As little as ten…?
The cloud-layer seemed a long, long way beneath him. The Firefox would drop towards and through it into a frozen wilderness. At first, the clouds would be light, gauzy, slipping past the cockpit like curtains brushed aside. Then the light would go. Greyness would thicken until he broke through to the snow that lay beneath. Trees would rush endlessly beneath the Firefox's belly as it glided on empty tanks. Finally, the airplane would run out of supporting air, as if it had gained weight, and the trees would brush against its flanks and belly. They would snap at first, then their strength in succession and combination would snap the wings, pull the Firefox into the ground.
By that time, he would have ejected. In order to die of frostbite and exposure. He would freeze to death in Finnish Lapland. All this he knew, and despite his fierce grip on the control column, his forearms quivered. His body felt weak, helpless. And filled with a self-accusation that burned him.
He should have checked
. After the dogfight he should have checked! He had been caught like a rookie pilot on his first solo flight.
His mistake had killed him. He was almost out of fuel, despite the mockery with which the two huge Turmansky turbo-jets behind him continued to roar as violently as ever. The noise was like their own, last protest -
Fifty-two thousand feet.
He couldn't land the Firefox in neutral Finland, that had been made clear to him from the beginning. Never, under any circumstances… Nor Sweden, because of the same neutrality. There was only Norway. But where? Bardufoss was far to the north-west by now - he was well south of Kirkenes. Both of those airfields were, effectively, closed to him by distance.
Oslo was hundreds of miles ahead of him still.
Did he have more than twenty minutes left? He could not believe he did.
The Firefox's nose nudged round as the aircraft altered course once more, mockingly obedient to its computer instructions. A chicken with its head cut off, still running.
He glanced down at the map strapped to his knee. He released the control column with his right hand, stilled its quivering, and estimated distances. Kirkenes was less than ten miles from the Soviet border with Norway. Bardufoss was perhaps another hundred miles further from his present position, but it was a NATO base.
How - ?
Climb, he thought, climb, climb… The sweat ran freely down his arms and sides. His whole body arched in a sigh of relief. His facemask was misty when he finally exhaled. Zoom climb. As he had done before, before he found the ice-floe and the American submarine with its priceless cargo of fuel. Climb.
He hesitated for no more than a moment, then switched off the auto-pilot and cancelled the on-board computer's instructions. Once more, Gant controlled the Firefox. Out over the Arctic Ocean, ignorant of the location and nature of the rendezvous, he had had to glide on over the sea, slowly dropping towards it, the Arctic ice-cap white on his horizon. Now, he knew the distances, he could calculate the length of his glide. He would make it.
He moved the control column and the Firefox banked, altering course for Bardufoss airfield. Altitude, forty-nine thousand feet. He pulled back on the column and eased the throttles forward, wincing as he did so; then he recalculated. Seventeen minutes' flying time left to him. The engines roared steadily. He lifted the nose further. The sky was dark blue almost deepening to black ahead of him. And empty. Gant felt competence return, an almost-calm. Every panic was shorter now. He came out of his helplessness more and more quickly each time. He would make it -
The aircraft began to climb. He had to assume virtually empty tanks by the time he reached Bardufoss. To glide the whole distance, he would require an altitude of more than one hundred and thirty thousand feet. Once he reached the required altitude, he would set up the engines for maximum range. Then all that remained to him was to fly until the engines failed through lack of fuel. Bardufoss was - he tapped at the tiny keyboard of the inertial navigator display, summoning a distance-to-target readout. Almost at once, the dark green screen declared in glowing red - Bardufoss was two hundred and twenty-four-point-six miles away. He calculated his best speed to be two hundred and sixty knots. Even if the engines suddenly cut at one hundred and thirty-two thousand feet, gliding at that speed he would make it all the way.