I had landed at the Batumi airport with the F-15 and taxied into the general aviation block as Kemal’s letter instructed. There, I handed the aircraft over to the U.S. Air Force representatives as we had planned, and found myself at loose ends as I watched the Americans secure their sleek grey fighter. I sheltered inside one of the general aviation hangars, seated on the cold concrete floor and placed my back against a pallet of burlap sacks, filled with something musty I couldn’t identify, and dozed under the harsh, amber glare of the hangar’s sodium-vapour lights high above my head.
My helmet was next to me, atop my flight bag of charts, and I heard someone kick it, as if by accident, the man tripping and cursing in a familiar language. Turkish! My heart stopped, and I came awake, my hand flying reflexively to the Makarov pistol strapped in its holster across my chest.
“Peace! You are Sacha?” The man, a swarthy, stocky Turk with a thick mustache and stubbled face, held blunt-fingered hands up in a gesture of submission. He furtively glanced around, waiting for my reply.
“Come with me, quickly. Your jailer from Suhumi sends me.”
I hesitated. That could mean many things. After all, Muqtadeh counts many Turks among his friends and the mullahs are powerful in Turkey. The man gave me an exasperated look.
“You were the killer of Abu Jihad and thus known to the Imam’s men. In hospital at Suhumi you called your jailer a ‘Turkish dog’ and spat on the floor at his feet. Nevertheless, he saved your life, and took you out while the Imam’s men were at the noon prayer. I guarded the door of the hospital room that day. You left in the Syrian’s flight suit and your jailer kissed your hand before you got out of his car! Now, you must trust me as you trust him, for I am his man still and time is short, and he risks all of our lives for this! Come!”
This is why I came, no? Risky, yes. But what is life, without risk, eh? So, I gathered my courage and my flight bag and helmet, and I followed the Turk out into the afternoon rain. Outside, away from the Americans, alone by the hangar wall, an American jeep waited.
“Get in, and keep down. In the back you will find clothes, change into them quickly. You are not a pilot now, understand?”
I did as he asked. My guide started the jeep and made a beeline across the parking area. I changed into the provided American jeans and t-shirt, strapping my Makarov’s shoulder holster across it and slipping a dark broadcloth Oxford over it, loose so I could reach the weapon. As I folded the jeans’ cuffs down over my American Hi-Tec flight boots, I looked up and saw an Mi-8 helicopter, one without markings of any kind. Just a number, in red and white. Georgian? A Georgian helicopter? But that made no sense! I looked across the jeep, and my guide must have noticed my expression.
s, it is what you think it is. Georgian. They too assist the Imam’s men, when it suits them. You did not know this? They have no desire for you Russians to gain sway over all of Abkhazia. It suits them to have you and the martyrs of Jihad at one another’s throats. Why do you think that the Georgian army stays out of the Emirate, eh? Now, quiet, we are near. I do not want that Georgian pilot to become too nosy. He will fly us to my commander, and there you will learn what you are here to learn from him.”
I wound my hair into a ponytail, thinking. This explains why the Georgian Su-25s were so inactive when they were at Gudauta airbase with the Canadians. It was not fear at all! And it explains why they died so proudly, the one mission I flew with them — their brave pilots must be incensed at the — to them — inexplicable inactivity by their government, letting the mujahids occupy southern Abkhazia without lifting a finger to stop them! I followed the Turk’s directions, and quietly got into the helicopter for the flight. I guessed that it would be north, back into Abkhazia.
Back into the Emirate, where my enemies waited.
By this time, Sergei and his crew had made themselves as comfortable as possible inside their steel monster, and had reached their river crossing without incident.
The T-55AM is a rebuilt tank, an old design that served our country well for many years. It is most unlike the T-72 that my brother normally commands. There, he and Pavel are buried in the turret amongst a forest of machinery, an area more cramped than the cockpit of a jet fighter! But the T-55, it is comparative luxury and wide-open space, and even then with the three of them — Sergei, Dan, and Pavel, it was a little stuffy for them, I am sure. Vadim, in the driver’s seat, drove with his head out of the front hatch for better visibility. Stoic, even the continuing cold drizzle did not bother him. My brother drilled their newest crew member in his duties.