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The rule of the people, p.17
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       The Rule Of The People, p.17

           Christopher Read

  Chapter 8 – Friday, November 18th

  Sino-Russian Border – 08:26 Local Tine; Thursday 22:26 UTC

  The dawn sky was cloud-free, the temperature hovering around freezing with the forecast for light snow late in the afternoon. Breakfast was a low-key affair, Markova worried as to what the next few hours might bring, Nikolai merely content to escape the claustrophobia of the car. Since leaving the main highway, there had been no sign of any other vehicles, no sense that China lay just a few kilometres distant. The physical barriers meant that the border region was effectively unguarded but not completely so, the long-range eye of a helicopter their main concern.

  Their luck couldn’t hold forever. The A189 highway was the only route north and the risks of following it were all-too obvious, allies increasingly few and far between. The FSB would soon be forced to focus its full attention on the struggle against China and Markova was becoming nothing more than a renegade agent with nowhere left to call home, not even the Lubyanka.

  “The audio file,” said Nikolai suddenly, “what if Morozov passes it on to the Americans?”

  “The Americans?” repeated Markova, her thoughts still stuck in Moscow. “That might not be too helpful for Russian-U.S. relations.”

  Nikolai still saw it as a good option, “The file proves Sukhov’s involved and he leads directly to Golubeva. If the Americans understood that, it might just let China off the hook and make Golubeva think twice before invading. Isn’t that what we want – to stop a war?”

  “If we can,” Markova said frowning, “but it’s just not that simple. Deangelo is already committed to helping the Philippines and the origin of the Koschei has become a complication no-one wants. In any case, Chavkin would have said anything to protect his family – that’s the only argument the Kremlin needs. By itself, his account means nothing.”

  “Facts, names and dates – they could all be checked and verified. Morozov’s outnumbered and surrounded in Astrakhan: he needs to put the pressure back on Golubeva; perhaps even persuade a few more doubters to support him. Morozov could even threaten to give the file to the American and Chinese media.”

  Markova simply sat and stared at Nikolai, seeing the logic in what he was suggesting just not convinced it would be the right thing to do. Threaten Golubeva, certainly, but actually publicising such politically sensitive material for all to see was clearly a step too far, the repercussions impossible to judge. Would General Morozov really risk turning the whole world against Russia out of spite for Golubeva? And how would America react knowing that they had definitely been tricked into a war?

  “Morozov’s got no choice,” said Nikolai, determined to win the argument. “And if he doesn’t give it to the Americans, what use is it?”

  “You’re wrong, Sergeant,” said Markova, finally finding her voice. “Morozov’s not that desperate.”

  Nikolai made as if to reply but was distracted by the deep-throated drone of a helicopter, both of them turning instantly towards the sound. The camouflage of browns and grey left little doubt it was military, the profile suggesting a Russian Mi-17 transport. It was approaching from the north, flying low while possibly tracking the main highway. The crew might miss Markova and Nikolai but not the VW Tiguan, its regular black shape standing out against the white of the surrounding snow.

  Nikolai glanced pointedly towards the car and Markova nodded her agreement, hoping that the helicopter might simply be a routine patrol and nothing to do with them. Away from the highway the landscape was of low mountains clothed in forest, their vehicle unlikely to cope beyond the first score of a hundred small streams or an ice-covered slope. They could split up and force any pursuers to make a choice but on foot in autumn their chances of survival were fairly slim. Nikolai well knew he could bail out at any time with merely a nod of thanks – maybe even a hug – for all that they had been through together, but that was simply not an option, and despite Markova’s penchant for being high-handed and obstinate, he wasn’t yet willing to relinquish his role of protector.

  Markova sat in the passenger seat and watched in silence as the helicopter swept ever closer. It was still following the highway, seemingly not interested in what lay to either side. Abruptly it turned west, angling down directly towards the Tiguan.

  A shouted command from Markova and the car engine burst into life, the Tiguan accelerating forward and lurching its way deeper into the trees. The overgrown and icy track was proving a severe test even for the four-wheel drive of the VW, the vehicle slewing from side to side, Nikolai having to fight to keep control. Markova couldn’t now see or hear the helicopter but knew it would be closing in. Even without infra-red, the pursuers would easily be able to track the Tiguan, the trees not yet providing a thick enough canopy to cover their escape.

  Above the strain of the VW’s engine, there was the rattle of gunfire and Markova instantly ducked. Nikolai merely speeded up, powering through a small stream to follow the track as it twisted and climbed.

  There was a second burst of gunfire, bullets exploding into the trees to the left, splinters ricocheting from the car. The Tiguan bucked suddenly as a front tyre shredded, the car careering left. It ploughed through the undergrowth, bouncing off one tree to smash into another, air bags instantly deploying to cushion the impact.

  Markova’s face was on fire and she sat stunned and unmoving before the survival instinct kicked in. She wrestled the car door open, gun dragged from her jacket as she fought her way into the open air. Belatedly, she looked back to see Nikolai sliding out through the driver’s door, face bloodied.

  Markova moved round to help, pulling Nikolai away from the car, and the two of them stumbled through the trees, moving higher up the slope while hoping for some sort of miracle. Markova couldn’t hear the sound of the helicopter, her ears bombarded by a loud high-pitched hiss, no time to work out why.

  The trees were denser now, Markova not wanting to stop but knowing that Nikolai was struggling badly. They slithered down a rocky incline and lay on the ground, Nikolai’s chest heaving, blood still dripping from his nose.

  Markova scanned the trees, a gentle breeze barely enough to disturb the remaining leaves. With its complex mix of broadleaf and coniferous, the forest undergrowth was a thick and yielding cushion, footsteps deadened to become almost silent. The background hiss in her ears was slowly easing and Markova looked again at Nikolai, needing to know whether to make a stand or try and flee.

  Two minutes later they were hugging the ground and heading north-west, edging closer to the border. The trees slowly began to thin out, the steep slope becoming rock-strewn and bare, Markova pausing every few minutes to let Nikolai catch his breath; he would never complain and was doing his best, but the wounds of the past were taking their toll.

  Markova guessed they’d come as much as a kilometre; still no sign of the helicopter or anyone on foot but it was just too much to hope that the pursuers had abandoned the chase.

  “I’ll catch up,” said Nikolai softly. “You go, Major.”

  “We go together, Sergeant.” Markova was growing tired of running from one problem to another; time now to make a stand. Somehow she needed to forget those chasing them were simply Russian troops following orders – worse still, they might even be fellow Special Forces, the elite spetsnaz.

  The first clatter of feet on stone came from their right, then more sounds from further down the slope. Markova and Nikolai separated; handguns against assault rifles was never likely to be a winning combination and the pursuers could take their time, maybe even under orders to keep them alive.

  The rattle of automatic weapons dispelled that hope, bullets pummelling the rocks around Markova, something grazing her cheek. She squirmed left, firing at a figure kneeling beside a tree, seeing his body jerk back.

  The gunfire from both sides intensified, Markova judging at least four attackers. She eased her body further up the slope, hugging the ground, knowing that she had but a few shots left, the final outcome inevitable.

sp; There was another flurry of shots, Markova hearing a grunt of pain from away to her left. She glanced across to see Nikolai lying motionless, blood pooling under his head, eyes staring blankly.

  Markova tore her gaze away, firing wildly, uncaring now as to what happened next, Nikolai’s sacrifice proving the futility of the past two weeks. There was a sudden sound from behind her, a heavy weight thudding into her back, the gun torn from her hand.

  Seconds later she was hauled upright, her captors’ Russian army uniforms and insignia belying the fact they were definitely Special Forces. With hands tied behind her, Markova watched in silence as Nikolai’s body suffered the ignominy of a search, anger and bitterness overwhelming her sense of despair.

  A hefty shove encouraged Markova back down the slope, Nikolai left for others to recover. Two of the spetsnaz team of six had been wounded, one struggling to walk unaided, but there was no outward show of resentment and except for an occasional curt word of command Markova was barely even acknowledged.

  After some twenty minutes, they emerged through the trees, the final few hundred metres a steep climb onto a rocky plateau where the helicopter waited. Abruptly, the lead spetsnaz paused just thirty metres short, waving the others to a halt, some sixth sense warning him as to danger.

  Markova waited, body wavering slightly, trying to control her emotions, no idea as to what had so spooked her captors. Even as one of the spetsnaz shouted out a warning there was the sudden staccato chatter of gunfire and the man beside Markova took a hesitant pace back before sinking to his knees, blood bubbling at his lips. Markova stood stock-still, somehow knowing she wasn’t in danger, watching transfixed as the lives of those around her were brutally extinguished. The spetsnaz barely had a chance to fire back, a dozen or more guns used against them.

  Silence returned. A single figure dressed in winter camouflage appeared from near the helicopter, his features clearly marking him out as Chinese. More men emerged from cover to Markova’s left, assault rifles aimed vaguely towards her. Her rescuers seemed to know exactly what to expect and Markova was evidently not some random victim of a cross-border incursion. One at a time, each of the spetsnaz was expertly searched, Markova last of all, no allowance made for her sex but no liberties taken either. Everything considered important was placed in a backpack resting on the ground, Markova surprised to see the bags from the VW Tiguan standing alongside.

  Despite her animosity towards Golubeva, the role of traitor had never been one Markova had felt she deserved, until now. Thanks to her, the future of the audio file and Chavkin’s tale of deceit was no longer for General Morozov alone to decide, and China now had a key piece of evidence to help prove their innocence. The Kremlin’s strategy of coercing the United States into a war with China was rapidly turning sour, Russia herself perhaps equally likely to become the surprise target for American anger.

  It was barely five minutes before the group moved off on foot, heading roughly west and always uphill, an occasional prod from a rifle an incentive to Markova not to tarry. Russia’s military wasn’t the only obvious danger, the region home to the endangered Amur Tiger and the even rarer Leopard, a few hundred in total roaming south of Khabarovsk and into China.

  After some ten minutes the leader called a halt, the trees far more sparse now. A dejected Markova waited uncertainly, trying to prepare herself for what was next but no idea what it might be. Strong hands on her shoulders forced her to her knees, head held rigid. She tried not to resist but it was an instinctive reaction, worse still when something damp was thrust across her mouth and nose. There was an unpleasant tingling as the anaesthetic took effect, Markova strangely content that it wasn’t going to be an injection or a simple rifle butt to the head.
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