I had the strangest dream last night:
We were sitting under the awning of the sidewalk cafe across from the airfield when we heard the big jet on final. Despite having been built to satisfy imperial ambitions years ago, the weed-straggling airport here hadn't seen much of anything bigger than a puddle jumper in a long time, and the sound was unexpected enough to cause me to bang my shotgun against the cafe's rusty wrought iron railing as I leaned awkwardly out to see what was making the roar.
It was one of those Soviet Airbus knockoffs, and not an Aeroflot one, either, as the mottled gray paint and the pods under the wings for flares and chaff made abundantly clear. And it was obviously about to land here.
It was moderately unsettling. I mean, we had as much right to be here as the Russkies did, of course, but despite our blue passports, my partner and I were here pretty much on our own hook, and that was definitely a Very Official Soviet plane.
It landed hard and short, reversing thrust and piling on the braking, and then, rather than taxiing off, it turned a one-eighty and, with flaps still dropped, powered down. That was weird.
The plane might as well have been invisible to the locals, the adults at least, inured as they were to the comings and goings of the various pawns and rooks of the great game, but a few of the younger ones ran across the dusty street and pressed their faces to the chain link. My partner was staring at the Airbuski, stroking his chin in thought, and I kept one eye on the plane myself as I went back to my tea.
By the time we were ready to leave some fifteen minutes later, the plane was still sitting silent and alone in the middle of the uncontrolled field's runway, which was decidedly odd. Most of the urchins had wandered off as we strolled out onto the street ourselves...
Another jet. Loud. Looking up, we could see a second Russian heavy, flaps and gear down, suddenly adding power and veering off as it saw its twin parked smack in the middle of the tarmac. A pair of MiGs, tiny in comparison, jinked to avoid the plane they'd I guess been escorting as it rose and proceeded to orbit the field absurdly low. There was still no sign of life from the freighter on the strip. Its mate passed one last time over our heads, low enough that we could see the dirt and grime on its underbelly, and then, trailing the fighter planes like chicks behind their momma, it turned back north.
"What was that all about?" I wondered aloud.
"Beats hell outta me," muttered my partner.
With the sky once again empty, the Airbuski suddenly popped its forward cabin door open, and a rope ladder unspooled to span the long drop to the ground. Then nothing again for what seemed like a long... Wait, a noise. A single, muffled... was that a gunshot?
My partner walked over to the gate in the fence without another word, pushed it open, and moved out at a trot toward the plane. Given a choice between standing like an idiot by myself or running across a couple hundred yards of open field like an idiot with someone else, I opted for the latter. The company was better.
As we got to the bottom of the ladder, we could hear what sounded like wailing from inside the open hatch. It sounded like someone was giving a housecat a rough time of it up there. My partner was reaching for the ladder, but I got a hand on it first.
I swarmed up it, not knowing what to expect, and feeling kind of idiotic. My head was almost level with the hatch before I realized that climbing into a foreign military aircraft, even one in apparent distress, with an ugly short-barreled shotgun slung over my back was not likely to make me look like the Welcome Wagon. I was too high up to ditch it now, though, especially with my partner halfway up the ladder below me.
If I didn't know better, that sound was babies crying. On a Commie cargo jet?
I risked a peek over the lip of the hatch and, sure enough, right there inside it were two blanket-swaddled shapes lying on the cargo floor and howling their little lungs out. The plane looked otherwise empty, its webbing seats stowed against the sides of the fuselage.
I clambered through the hatch and looked towards the cockpit door, which was ajar. I could smell gunpowder. And blood. Unslinging my shotgun, I nosed through the door as my partner entered the plane.
There was just one guy in the pilot's seat, wearing a colonel's uniform. He was dressed for a day at the office, not for the flight line, and he was deader than Elvis. The Krink he'd used to put a bullet in his own chest lay between his feet.
He'd wanted to get his kids out so bad that he took the first chance he had. Knowing they'd come after him for what was in his head, he decided to put a stop to that the only way he could.
We picked up the kids and split before the cavalry could return...