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LAKE BAIKAL, SIBERIA
FRIDAY, JANUARY 18
Bitter experience had taught Cotton Malone that the middle of nowhere usually signaled trouble.
And today was no exception.
He banked the plane 180 degrees for another peek downward before he landed. The pale orb of a brassy sun hung low to the west. Lake Baikal lay sheathed in winter ice thick enough to drive across. He’d already spotted transport trucks, buses, and passenger cars speeding in all directions atop milky-white fracture lines, their wheel marks defining temporary highways. Other cars sat parked around fishing holes. He recalled from history that in the early 20th century rail lines had been laid across the ice to move supplies east during the Russo-Japanese War.
The lake’s statistics seemed otherworldly. Formed from an ancient rift valley thirty million years old, it reigned as the world’s oldest reservoir and contained one-fifth of the planet’s freshwater. Three hundred rivers fed into it but only one drained out. Nearly four hundred miles long and up to fifty miles wide, its deepest point lay five thousand feet down. Twelve hundred miles of shoreline stretched in every direction and thirty islands dotted its crystalline surface. On maps it was a crescent-shaped arc in southern Siberia, 2,000 miles west from the Pacific and 3,200 miles east of Moscow, part of Russia’s great empty quarter near the Mongolian border. A World Heritage Site. Which likewise gave him pause, as those usually meant trouble, too.
Winter had claimed a tight hold on both water and land. The temperature hovered right at zero, snow lay everywhere, but thankfully none was currently falling. He worked the controls and leveled off at 700 feet. Warm air blasted his feet from the cabin heater. The plane had been supplied by the Russian air force from a small airport outside Irkutsk. Why there was so much Russian–American cooperation he did not know, but Stephanie Nelle had told him to take advantage of it. Usually visas were required for entry into Russia. He’d used fake ones many times in his day as a Magellan Billet agent. Customs could also be a problem. But this time there was no paperwork, nor had any officials impeded his arrival. Instead, he’d flown into the country on a Russian Sukhoi/HAL fighter, a new version with two seats, to an air base north of Irkutsk where twenty-five Tupolev Tu-22M medium-range bombers lined the tarmac. An Ilyushin II-78 tanker had provided refueling along the way. A helicopter had been waiting at the air base, which ferried him south to where the plane waited.
The An-2 came with a single engine, two pairs of wings, an enclosed cockpit, and a rear cabin large enough to hold twelve passengers. Its thin aluminum fuselage constantly shook from a four-blade propeller that bit a choppy path through the frigid air. He knew little about this World War II Soviet work horse, which flew slow and steady with barely any zip to its controls, this one equipped with skis that had allowed him to take off from a snowy field.
He completed the turn and readjusted his course northeast, skirting heavily timbered ground. Large boulders, like the teeth of an animal, protruded in ragged lines down ridges. Along a distant slope sunlight glinted on phalanxes of high-voltage power lines. Beyond the lakeshore, the terrain varied from flat empty earth, punctuated by small wooden houses clustered together, to forests of birch, fir, and larch, finally to snow-topped mountains. He even spotted some old artillery batteries situated along the crest of a rocky ridge. He’d come to examine a cluster of buildings that hugged close to the eastern shore, just north of where the Selenga River ended its long trek from Mongolia. The river’s mouth, choked with sand, formed an impressive delta of channels, islands, and reed beds, all frozen together in an angular disorder.
“What do you see?” Stephanie Nelle asked him through his headset.
The An-2’s communications system was connected through his cell phone so they could talk. His former boss was monitoring things from DC.
“A lot of ice. It’s incredible that something so large can be frozen so solid.”
Deep-blue vapor seemed embedded in the ice. A swirling mist of powdered snow blew across the surface, its diamond-like dust brilliant in the sun. He made another pass and studied the buildings below. He’d been briefed on the locale with satellite images.
Now he had a bird’s-eye view.
“The main house is away from the village, maybe a quarter mile due north,” he said.
The village with log houses seemed quiet, only fleecy clouds of smoke curling from chimneys indicating occupancy. The settlement rambled with no focal point, a single black road leading in, then out, outlined by snow. A church comprising yellow and pink plank walls and two onion domes dominated the center. It nestled close to the shore, a pebbly beach separating the houses from the lake. He’d been told that the eastern shore was less visited and less populated. Only about 80,000 people lived in fifty or so communities. The lake’s southern rim had developed into a tourist attraction, popular in summer, but the rest of the shoreline, stretching for hundreds of miles, remained remote.
Which was exactly why the place below existed.
Its occupants called the town Chayaniye, which meant “hope.” Their only desire was to be left alone and the Russian government, for over twenty years, had accommodated them. They were the Red Guard. The last bastion of die-hard communists remaining in the new Russia.
He’d been told that the main house was an old dacha. Every respectable Soviet leader back to Lenin had owned a country place, and those who’d administered the far eastern provinces had been no exception. The one below sat atop a whaleback of rock jutting out into the frozen lake, at the end of a twisting black road among a dense entanglement of trailing pines feathered with snow. And it was no small, wooden garden hut, either. Instead, its ocher façade had been constructed from what appeared to be brick and concrete, rising two stories and topped by a slate roof. Two four-wheeled vehicles were parked off to one side. Smoke curled thick from its chimneys and from one of several wooden outbuildings.
No one was in sight.
He completed his pass and banked west back out over the lake for another tight circle. He loved flying and had a talent for controlling machinery in motion. Shortly, he’d make use of the skis and touch down on the ice five miles south near the town of Babushkin, then taxi to its dock—which, he’d been told, handled no water traffic this time of year. Ground transportation should be waiting there so he could head north for an even closer look.
He flew over Chayaniye and the dacha one last time, dipping for a final approach toward Babushkin. He knew about the Great Siberian March during the Russian Civil War. Thirty thousand soldiers had retreated across the frozen Baikal, most dying in the process, their bodies locked in the ice until spring when they finally disappeared down into the deep water. This was a cruel and brutal place. What had one writer once said? Insolent to strangers, vengeful to the unprepared.
And he could believe it.
A flash caught his attention from among the tall pines and larch, whose green branches stood in stark contrast with the white ground beneath them. Something flew from the trees, hurtling toward him, trailing a plume of smoke.
“I’ve got problems,” he said. “Somebody is shooting at me.”
An instinctive reaction from years of experience threw him into autopilot. He banked hard right and dove further, losing altitude. The An-2 handled like an eighteen-wheeler, so he banked steeper to increase the dive. The man who’d turned the plane over earlier had warned him about keeping a tight grip on the controls, and he’d been right about that. The yoke bucked like a bull. Every rivet seemed on the verge of vibrating loose. The missile roared past, clipping both left wings. The fuselage shuddered from the impact and he leveled off out of the dive and assessed the damage. Only fabric had covered the lift surfaces, and many of the struts were now exposed and damaged, ragged edges whipping in the airflow.
Stability immediately became an issue.
The plane rocked and he fought to maintain control. He was now headed straight into a stiff north wind, his airspeed less than 50 knots. The danger of stalling became real.
“What’s happening?” Stephanie asked.
The yoke continued to fight to be free, but he held tight and gained altitude. The engine roared like a rumble of motorcycles, the prop digging in, fighting to keep him airborne.
He heard a sputter.
Then a backfire.
He knew what was happening. Too much stress was being applied to the prop, which the engine resisted.
Power to the controls winked in and out.
“I’ve been hit by a surface-to-air missile,” he told Stephanie. “I’m losing control and going down.”
The engine died.
All of the instruments stopped working.
Windows wrapped the cockpit, front and side, the copilot’s seat empty. He searched below and saw only the blue ice of Lake Baikal. The An-2 rapidly changed from a plane to eight thousand pounds of deadweight.
Dread swept through him, along with one thought.
Was this how he would die?