Short stories published in TV Choice, Spain: 2013: Max 1500 Words
Copyright: Quentin Cope: 2013
January 6th 1973 – Poltava – Northern Ukraine - USSR
It was an exceptionally cold winter in northern Ukraine. The early January air temperature registered minus ten and the wind chill factor was driving it down even further on that bleak, seemingly lifeless Saturday night. Captain Maksym Borsuk checked his black faced, Poljot stainless steel military watch. It was twenty three hundred hours and four minutes. Any time now.
The snow was still falling on the arrow straight road between Poltava and Stasi, as it had been for the past three days, narrowing the navigable width down to one single track with ice banks piled up to over a metre on either side. Captain Borsuk, with three of his troop manned a simple red and black striped, single pole timber barrier, placed across the road some four miles from the Soviet Military Air Base at Poltava. It was unusual for a Captain of the Spetsnaz GRU Tenth Separate Brigade to be attending barricades in the middle of the night. But this was an unusual situation. The official looking obstacle had been in place for only ten minutes. He and his troop of eight men were waiting for one particular vehicle to appear from the near white-out in front of them. It would be coming from the direction of Stasi. The barrier guards wore the uniforms of standard Russian Airborne Troops beneath dark grey greatcoats and heads covered ineffectively by light blue VDV berets. The four men at the barrier all carried powerful, heavy, rubberized, steel cased torches and AKMS automatic assault rifles. The remaining five members of the troop were hidden from view some meters north of the barrier, dug in behind the ice banks.
Straining eyes picked up the glimmer of a headlight through the continuous snow flurries, then two, then three. The middle one would be a motorcycle escort and the other two would be the ten ton truck. There could be an escort of some kind behind the truck, Maksym mused, either a four wheel drive of some sort… or maybe another motorcycle. The Captain spoke into a hand held VHF radio.
‘This is the one!’ No reply was required.
The noise of steel tire studs crunching into the compacted ice became louder and the stabs of light brighter as the small convoy approached. Whatever it consisted of, the plan hadn’t changed. It was a simple one, as all good plans were. Kill everyone and take the truck. The motorcycle crawled up to the barrier made visible by the beams of torches moving casually back and forth across the striped pole supported on two, rusting steel tripods. The motorcycle stopped, as did the KAZ-717 semi trailer behind. The rider dismounted ready to approach the great-coated officer at the barrier, but as he did so, barely heard through the considerable wind noise, a shot was fired. He instinctively turned his head to look back past the truck where he thought the disturbing noise had come from. Straining eyes revealed the morphing shapes of two shadowy figures approaching either side of the truck from the rear.
“What the hell was going on?”
It was, in fact, a final thought as his head was pulled back sharply, twisted violently to the left and a stiletto shaft of case hardened, blue metal driven upward beneath his rib cage. With neck broken and heart ripped apart, the lifeless body of the motorcycle rider was allowed to fall to the icy roadway. At exactly the same moment, two nine millimeter, hard-nosed bullets, efficiently delivered by military issue Makarov pistols ended the promising careers of Junior Sergeant Demichev and Private Ogienko, the bodies of which were roughly pulled out of the truck cab and dumped behind the steadily growing ice banks.
The bodies of two motorcycle escorts and their warm mechanical mounts would follow suit as the Captain dropped the tailboard and jumped in to the canvas topped rear of the truck. He needed to examine its cargo. Four or five pairs of eager hands ripped the canvas cover back behind him. There were, as expected, two sturdy, well manufactured timber ply boxes on the flat bed of the truck. He released the dozen or so snap catches securing the lid of one box to check its contents. Inside, held by tailored anti-vibration brackets and mounts sat a black missile shaped object about three metres long and a metre in diameter.
Captain Borsuk pulled his torch downward, to quickly read the light grey, Cyrillic scripted code, stenciled on the casing of the missile. He grunted in satisfaction. One of his men opened up the other box. The contents were the same. This, so far silent, group of highly trained, highly intelligent military specialists were now the proud owners of two Russian manufactured RDS-4, 30 Kiloton nuclear devices. The Captain spoke to the man nearest to him as he vaulted athletically from the back of the truck.
‘You … drive the truck. Tell the others to get in under the canvas cover at the back’
‘OK Maksym’ the soldier replied. First names were always used in Borsuk’s unit, regardless of rank.
‘Help me with the barrier’
In the yellow glow of the truck’s poor quality headlights, the two men threw the pole and two tripods over the snow layered ice banks and with a quick look back to ensure all the men were aboard and out of sight beneath the stiffening tailored canvas cover, they clambered in to the cab, pulling the ill fitting doors as tightly closed as possible. The Captain spoke again.
‘Right … you know where to go. First stop Kremenchuk’ The driver pulled up the heater lever to its highest level whilst coercing the stubborn floor mounted gear lever in to first. This was accompanied by some level of protest from the non-synchromesh gearbox, but then with a final grating rumble, they were on their way.
The normal twenty minute drive to the large lock-up store in Kremenchuk took nearly an hour. They were now behind time. Using a loading ramp and A-frame chain hoist, the nine men transferred the two timber crates weighing around 4,000 Kilos each from the Kaz and into two smaller Kolhida five ton panel trucks. Fully fuelled and eager to get away from the area as quickly as possible, the two trucks edged out of the lock-up into the murky night. The bad weather was a godsend. There would be no police out on a night like this and any military roadblocks between Kremenchuk and the coastal town of Berdyansk would be passed easily with one simple flash of a Spetsnaz GRU identity card. No one in the military, with even half a brain, would want to take them on. The team, tightly packed inside the two trucks with their sensitive cargo, would need to make up some time on the 330 Kilometer trip to Berdyansk, but Captain Borsuk was confident they would make it without blowing themselves and the southern half of the Ukraine to hell and back.
The deadline was midday on Sunday, January 7th. They made it to the outskirts of the town with half an hour to spare. Here, the two trucks parted company; one heading east to a lock-up store on Dyumyna Street and the other, containing Captain Borsuk, three men and one crate, toward Yuvleina Street and the gated entrance to the small commercial port. The dilapidated looking tramp steamer was waiting for them at the quayside. The Sea of Azov led into the Black Sea and on through to the Aegean. Borsuk did not know the final destination of a cargo that had so far cost four lives and didn’t need to. A forklift appeared from nowhere and headed straight for the drab grey vehicle parked on the quay side next to the rusting coastal vessel. Captain Borsuk walked purposely over to the port office and made a thirty second phone call. As he put the handset down, he was smiling.
On the short walk back to the truck, he raised a hand to his expectant comrades. Within minutes, the timber crate was off and carefully ensconced in cargo hold number three. The boat carried nothing else commercially and was in ballast. As soon as the one box was loaded, she was to be away. With doors tightly shut and the three members of his team on board, Borsuk gave the word and the matt grey painted panel truck headed for the port gates without fuss. The whole operation had taken literally minutes with little or no attention being paid by passers-by and general port staff to the transfer of the anonymous looking crate containing a 30 Kiloton nuclear bomb. Now, a reward was due - two point seven million US Dollars in used notes. It was where it should be. Maksym had checked, the phone call had confirmed it. That was why he was still smiling; one in the bag and one as a deadly insurance policy. This had been a good day’s work.
Copyright: Quentin Cope: 2013
January 25th 1959 – Jebel Akhdar – The Oman Interior.
It was dark and very, very cold sitting on a chillingly damp, mud floor within the confines of the half destroyed mud walled hut on the edge of Bani Habib village. This was Jebel Akhdar, a high plateau reaching to 10,000 feet on the edge of Oman’s Al Hajar mountain range. The temperature, three degrees centigrade and this was low enough for the thirty one year old Englishman sitting huddled in the corner of the dilapidated hut wearing a British Army greatcoat bearing the blackened shoulder pips of a Captain. On the other side of the hut, clutching Martini rifles in one hand and putting together the required items to light a fire in the other, were the Imam of Awabi, Sulayman bin Abdulla and his brother, Tammam bin Abdulla. They were both late forties, early fifties with Tammam being a few years younger than his brother. Sulayman had a birth date somewhere in between 1908 and 1912, depending upon which calendar you preferred to consult, but however old they both really were, they were fit, hard mountain fighters and they looked the part. Along with their military ally, Aasif bin Hashem, they were all wanted men. In fact they were wanted dead or alive and had been on the Sultan of Oman’s list for over four years.
The natural fortress of Jebel Akhdar had protected and kept them relatively safe for all those years, but the chill wind blowing relentlessly across the top of the Jebel that night, would bring with it betrayal, death and a disaster that would have repercussions for the Arab Gulf States for decades to come. The blackness of the night was invaded by the first sparks of a fire in the middle of the hut floor, now moving to a flame as Tammam bin Abdulla carefully placed small, dried kindling sticks over the smouldering sun burnt grass. Within minutes, a fire was roaring fed by two men who had entered the hut with armfuls of dried acacia branches. After twenty minutes, nearly a dozen fires were blazing away surrounding the hut with several tribal fighters gathered around each, mostly chatting loudly or smoking small copper lined pipes as they drank up the welcome warmth, leaning on their long barrelled Martini-Henry rifles, the weapon of choice in the Oman peninsular.
Small arms fire could be heard in the distance along with the odd flat, low register, vibrating sound of 81mm mortars. There was much activity in the north, as there had been for most of the day. The British ‘A’ Squadron SAS was pushing hard in to the Imam’s defences at Hajar and Aqabat al Dhafar. It was decision time. One of the donkey men loyal to the Imam and his cause had been at the British briefing the day before. Something serious was about to happen, but not the way the briefing Army Major had explained it. The Sultan of Oman and his British friends were determined to remove the Imam one way or another to end his rightful claim to being the religious and political leader of the Oman interior. This was not about political power, it was about money and that money was ripe to rise up out of the ground in the form of oil; a black sticky currency desperately needed by a still colonial minded Britain that sent mercenaries and the finest of British Special Forces to solve what was essentially a problem of history and tribal rights. The British were expert at supporting despotic regimes’ in third world countries. Their leaders were usually quite ruthless, had little or no social conscience and were sometimes proven to be completely mad, but the main thing was to make sure they were compliant. The Sultan of Oman filled all of these requirements admirably. The Imam spoke first.
‘Well Maxwell my friend’ what is your advice now?’
‘I have a feeling that we are somewhere in between ‘a rock and a hard place’… as our American cousins would put it.’
Captain Maxwell Armstrong, British military advisor, was seconded as a negotiator between the Imam, the Sultan’s representatives and the Commander of the British SAS forces in the Oman. He had been with the Imam and his tribal army for over a year now and had got to know the man well. He had used his time on the Jebel to learn Arabic and was now proficient. He had been summoned by the Sultan and should have been off Jebel Akhdar two days ago. He knew nothing of what was to shortly happen on the plateau. He was not party to military briefings, but he did know by the change of tactics over the past three days, that something was about to happen and tonight was probably the night. The aerial campaign by British Lancaster bombers and Venom jets had suddenly stopped and now there were literally hourly probes by the SAS in the north. The Imam had around fifteen hundred brave mountain fighters loyal to him on the Jebel and it would be up to him to decide whether or not these valuable lives should be sacrificed or spared in any ensuing battle. Tammam, the Imam’s younger brother spoke.
‘We should stand and fight … look at the damage we have done to the stupid Nasrani already. If we attack now in the north, we stand a chance of defeating them.’
‘Chai’ arrived and the men in the hut took a glass each of the over sugared black tea and began to drink. There was silence for a minute or two. The Imam, although tired, looked equally relaxed as he looked toward his English friend for a response. Maxwell simply shook his head. The Imam finally spoke.
‘My brothers … my heart is heavy and sad but I must consider the lives of all our brave followers who will get little or no mercy from the devilish agents of the Sultan. We will finish our tea and then move to Sharqiyah, where we have friends who will look after us and our brave fighters can disperse toward the Gulf coast, God willing.’
Everyone in the hut remained silent; if this was the will of the Imam, then there was no question that this was the correct path to take. Tammam was about to say something, but held back as he got up from his cross legged position on the mud floor and moved outside to organise the body guard of over eighty hardened fighters.
‘Will you be coming with us Maxwell?’ the Imam asked in a low, slightly emotional voice.
‘No my old friend, that is not possible. I fear that something will be happening here tonight and I think you should leave as quickly as possible. I will stay here and if all is well in the morning, I will move north to meet up with the Trucial Oman Scouts at their Rustaq camp.’
The Imam raised himself as did the English Captain. They hugged together for a long moment, a sign of great affection between two men from such differing backgrounds and cultures. Both men picked up their rifles and ammunition bandoliers and left the hut. A great shout went up from the assembled tribesmen as they shot the blackened clouds with endless rounds of ammunition. Finally all was silent. The Imam raised his arms, turned to look back at Maxwell and then disappeared out of the ring of light provided by the still burning fires and in to the misty shadows of the night, followed silently by his shabby looking band of rebel fighters.
The commander of ‘D’ Squadron SAS was facing a dilemma in his attempt to lead his troops on what would be a most difficult ten thousand foot climb up to the top of Jebel Akhdar in broad daylight. It was not broad daylight. It was three o’clock in the morning and his troops were fading fast as they reached the operationally coded ‘Causeway’ … a mountain crest about one third of the way up to the top of the Jebel itself. He had to do something or his troops would not reach the plateau by daylight. Each soldier was carrying a Bergen rucksack weighing nearly ninety pounds. He made the decision and ordered his men to remove the ammunition and grenades and then stash the rucksack on the ridge. If they survived the night, they could come back later for clothes, canteens and food rations. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t need them. The part trek and part climb continued with no rest.
When daylight finally came, ‘D’ Squadron and ‘A’ Squadron SAS were on the plateau. They were exhausted. There was no expected resistance, in fact the only sign of what could be called ‘the enemy’ was a small band of about twenty Bani Riyam tribesmen who were quite happy to ‘surrender’ if that was what the white, Christian soldiers …. the ‘Nasrani’… wanted. There was no sign of the Imam Sulayman bin Abdulla or his brother Tammam bin Abdulla. There was also no sign of Aasif bin Hashem the leader of over two thousand ‘rebel’ fighters …. or in fact the very fighters themselves. The so called ‘rebellion’ was over. After four long years, Jebel Akhdar had been taken. The London Times described the operation undertaken by the SAS on that dark day January 25th, 1959 as ‘a brilliant example of the economy in the use of force’. Maxwell Armstrong knew better.