The Defection of 43 Red

Coming around the long stretch of exercise track in a full sprint, Senior Ltd. Pavel Yostovich Dobrow let the clean view of the rising sun clear his mind and steady his breath at the end of his indoor ten kilometre run. The ivory sheen made the air glow with deadly invitation and his breath collected in mist at his lips. January in Severomorsk was a harsh mistress so close to the Arctic Circle, but she was never one to forget her beauty. The blinding purity of the sunlight shimmered off the hardened layer of snow covering many of the buildings and unfortunately immobilized vehicles.

He then heard the thunderous roar before he saw the silver lightning race down the runway behind him. A bullet of fire and Russian pride was lifting off for its morning stretch and patrol over the Barents Sea, eager to defend the Motherland. That mission alone made the Lieutenant’s chest warm with pride, but the machine himself made Pavel smile externally. Unlike the narrow tube with stumpy wings and twitchy controls that was the MiG-21 that Pavel had been subjected to in his last assignment, the base of Severomorsk-3 had been gifted with the double-engined rocket-ship that was the Su-15TM. A machine built like the Lt was; to run hard and fast. 

Learning how to tame the beast, especially in the severe polar winds, had been the most pleasing challenge of his life, and it had consumed the last six months of it almost entirely. Every chance he had to take the alert rotation,  Pavel took it, even if it meant spending 12-hrs shivering in the poorly-built pilot alert-quarters. This was his duty to his homeland, a nation still trying to recover from German betrayal and Western debauchery even three decades later. 

“Still daydreaming, Comrade Lieutenant?” A voice interrupted his thought train, and Pavel almost walked face first into Lieutenant Sergi Popov. 

The professionally-groomed arrogance that typically dripped from Sergi’s words was a grind on Pavel’s patience, especially when we sit alert and all he does is boast…

“Mission-planning, Comrade. We have the rotation tonight.” Pavel scoffed in response.

Sergi waved a dismissive hand. “It will be as still as death again, you and I both know. Come to the village with us! Enjoy a drink and a warm touch for a change!”

And let you pin false charges against me, you KGB rat? Pavel sneered internally. This wasn’t Sergi’s first attempt to bait the trap of pleasure for him. And judging by the rotation of new pilots coming next week, Sergi was obviously somewhat skilled at trapping flies in honey. 

“I doubt my wife would approve either, Lieutenant. Nor would the Colonel.” Pavel responded with a nod over Sergi’s shoulder. 

Staring through Sergi and into Pavel’s soul was the recently returned Senior Colonel Andrev Volkov. It was a look of hate Pavel had grown tolerant of since the transfer to Severomorsk-3, as it reminded him of a glorious training mission last year where, in a stolen Western fighter, the Lieutenant had completely embarrassed Andrev and another Colonel through skill and unquestionable tactical genius.

Sergi shook his head, feigning some sort of sadness for Pavel’s rejection. “Yours is a cold, lonely life Dobrow. No wonder you belong here among the seal shit.”

Pavel ignored him, watching Andrev turn and leave instead. The Lieutenant noted that the Colonel’s arm was unusually full of papers, one of the documents even bore his name, which should have been hard to make out from the meters away the two men were. Yet Pavel could read it as clear as day, which he knew he’d have to deal with later.

*****

Sergi had been right earlier that morning: the harsh winter’s night was as still as death. Not even the flags marking wind direction and speed would dare flutter in the darkness. Pavel didn’t mind the doldrums much, as there was a small crate of books to indulge in. Reading also enabled Pavel to ignore any of his wingman’s whining, private cursing, or self-satisfied smirk when Sergi returned from a round of self-pleasure.

It wasn’t unusual for the pilot phone mounted on the far wall, as there was little else to do in the middle of the night. It was the curt and hushed nature of the caller’s request that peaked Pavel’s interest at first. “Comrade Dobrow?” 

The voice on the other end was quiet, but also shaken as if it had seen something horrible. It took a moment for Pavel to recognize the voice of Senior Major Yeven Illych, the 91st’s Executive Officer under Colonel Volkov. To Pavel, Yeven should have been leading the 91st, given the Major’s combat record against the Americans in the jungle skies of Vietnam. But Yeven also bit the hand of the Party, so he was ensured to never promote again.

The informality of the senior man addressing the Lieutenant was very unusual, and Pavel had to concentrate on maintaining his level voice. “Standing by, Ground Control.” Pavel disguised the call as simply another status update to give to the base’s control tower.

“I know you didn’t do what the Article 53 accuses you of, but know that you will be arrested before the night ends, Andrev has ordered it.” Yeven relayed, sending Pavel’s stomach into his boots and turning him ghastly white.

For a moment, Pavel couldn’t believe his friend and squadmate had alerted alerted to this. It doesn’t make sense, nothing in my record would even HINT at betraying the Party? Why?

Turning away from Sergi to more easily whisper into the phone, Pavel quietly screamed. “Impossible! I’ve done nothing to…”

Yeven cut off Pavel’s retort “The Colonel still remembers how you disobeyed his orders and made a fool of him. How do you think he earned command? Through his own skills?”

A beat passed as dread unlike anything he’d ever felt crystallized in Pavel’s stomach. “Liliya?” He asked Yeven, passing only the pet name Pavel doted upon his wife, herself a thousand kilometres away in Moscow proper.

“Has already been arrested and confessed, Comrade. Her word will be the nail Andrev uses to crucify you.” Yeven responded, the Major’s voice shaking with quiet rage even across the phone line.

“Rec….recommendations?” Pavel  asked, knowing he was failing to maintain his composure. Trying not to turn his head, he saw that Sergi had risen from his seat, one hand at his belt as if to draw a weapon.

“Your choice, Comrade. Do-svidaniya.” Was all that Yeven responded with before the phone went dead. Too many thoughts raced through Pavel’s mind as he stood frozen with the receiver. How can they accuse me of crimes against the State?! I’ve given my life to it! To my homeland! WHY?!

Sergi’s outstretched hand reached his shoulder, which was all the time the KGB agent needed to dig his fingers into Pavel’s shoulder muscle to try and force him to his knees. Instinctively, Pavel yanked his arm back, pulling his attacker into an ill-advised headbutt. Both men stumbled backwards, but Pavel had the wall to steady himself where Sergi tripped over a chair and tried to kick it at him. Pavel’s return kick sent the chair away before he picked up Sergi’s helmet and swung it as hard as he could at its owner. Sergi hadn’t had enough time to stand upright before the helmet clocked him in the temple and eye socket. With a resounding crash of bloodied face and metal furnishings, Sergi went down and did not stir.

Pavel’s panic doubled, for now proof of the Yeven’s warning was at his feet. A moment to breathe turned that fear to rage, as Pavel sounded out his hypothesis in a growling, feral deduction. “This is what you do because I humiliated you, Colonel? You have me sent to the gulag?! My wife beaten into a false confession?!” Angrily, Pavel kicked the downed wingman, before a new thought dawned on him. I won’t even make it off the base before they arrest me, or shoot me…Der’mo, must I do this?

A quick check of Sergis pulse confirmed that Pavel’s strike had been fatal. Now, with his wingman dead, Pavel’s execution was guaranteed. There was only one even remote chance to live now, and it challenged everything he’d thought certain up to this point. How welcoming is the West when I bring them such a trophy as my fighter? How does your corruption compare to execution? An idea that made him partly sick, but also stood alone in his mind.

Pulling Sergi’s body around a corner to be out of immediate sight, Pavel took the folded map and flight planning tools from the dead man’s pockets. Donning his own helmet and flight gear, the pilot took in one last deep breath and headed outside into the biting cold of the night.

The alert apron where his escape was sitting was less than ten meters away, but it was the longest walk he’d ever taken. Pavel locked his eyes on the closest Su-15, 43 Red, mentally trying to pull himself faster towards it. Unlike most of the regiment’s other fighters, the four closest to Pavel were kept on alert, fueled and armed at all times in case of Western intruders. Still, launching a modern interceptor was not a one man job, yet Pavel was now about to attempt so.

As he reached the fighter, the pilot paused for a moment, almost turning to call on the ground crew in the neighboring shelter to assist him. Instead, he saw the four maintainers pants-less and circled around two young ladies they’d smuggled onto the installation. Were this any other day the Lieutenant would be required to have such adultery arrested and jailed, but Pavel let the men have their distraction. Every second they give me, I’ll take!

As quietly and quickly as possible, he prepared 43 Red to depart, dropping the access ladder away from the cockpit as he hopped in when he was ready. The ‘CLANG’ of metal against concrete was bone-rattling, but the maintainers kept their joyous circle intact, letting Pavel breathe a sigh of relief.

The Su-15’s twin engines screeched to life and the world around Pavel stopped for a moment. He looked over his shoulder and saw the once-engaged maintainers looking back at him in stark terror. The interceptor lurched forward with a twitch of the throttle and the ground crew scrambled to re-clothe and pull whatever alarm was closest. 

There was no stopping now, Lt Pavel Dobrow was now a traitor and an enemy of the State, so he pushed more power forward to move the fighter on the taxiway, then the runway facing directly north. When he pointed the aircraft down its takeoff path, a blinding spotlight lit up the canopy, followed by the wail of sirens all around. Without looking, Pavel pushed the throttle to full power, keeping his feet firm on the rudders. He had no doubt the Su-15 was screaming towards the airbase guards, which would be coming from most every direction. They would shoot to kill him, but save as much of the interceptor as possible. 

He could almost hear shouting over the roar of the Su-15’s afterburner kicking on, but Pavel shut them out. The moment he felt the tell-tale give of the control stick when the nose wheel left the earth, he pulled the controls into his lap as hard as he could. He could hear bullets tearing small holes in his wings and fuselage as the interceptor pulled itself into the low cloud cover of the icy night.

The spotlights from the airbase lost track of him after a few seconds, though the radio channel from the tower was howling at him to return or surrender. Pavel kept the Su-15 pointed straight north, punching past the speed of sound to stay ahead of any other ground-based guns. The infinite wastes of ice and dirt below him was broken only by faint streetlights until he raced past the small settlement of Granitnyy. Then there was only ice. Dobrow slowed the interceptor to below the speed of sound to save as much fuel as he could for the next part of his gauntlet.

With his last known landmark now behind him, Pavel pulled the Su-15 into a westerly turn. Only the internal compass told the pilot when to level his nose and finally breathe again. Only now did it dawn on him that he had little to no idea how to approach Western skies without immediately being shot down.

That concern was quickly shelved as a small star ignited in the night’s endless darkness. Pavel knew exactly what it was, and paused the interceptor’s nose almost straight down. He’d seen the S-200 missiles when they were being installed to the northwest of Severomorsk-3. Being a rocket engine filled with shrapnel designed to utterly shred whatever it hit, the missiles were very obvious to the eye, even from the sky. And being a ‘friendly’ system built to defend the Soviet skies, the Su-15 couldn’t tell from which direction the missile would come at it. His only escape now was down, hoping the horizon and the surf would mask enough of the large fighter.

Even racing away from his pursuit, Pavel could still see the shining plume of exhaust growing as the missile raced toward him. For a moment, the pilot ran his hand along the interceptor’s ejection handle, knowing full well he wouldn’t survive the crushing G-forces and drop into the freezing ocean. Or if I’m lucky, the missile kills us both…

And it was that thought that pulled his hands back to the control stick to steady the Su-15 into level flight, less than five meters off the icy waters of the North Sea. The aircraft fought him with every gust and twitch of the breeze, the waves below leaping up to try and snatch him down into the abyss. 

“No, I won’t be taken down! Not by them, not by you!” He screamed into his oxygen mask, expecting it to be the last words he’d ever hear. Instead, the thunderous roar of the S-200 soared over him, followed by a second missile a second later. Ten massive booster engines flamed out well past Pavel’s wings and continued on into the darkness before slamming into surf some distance away.

Pavel let his breath out through clenched teeth over a minute later, to make sure he hadn’t just hallucinated his own escape. He looked over both shoulders lingering over the last flickers of fire on the distant horizon. Then he looked up into the oppressive black of the cloudy night, wondering how many of his former comrades were now running to their planes to try and find him. Or will they just let me go? Blacklist my name and imprison anyone I’ve ever known…

A pang of sympathy turned his eyes to his hands, still gripping the control stick with white knuckles. But when he looked back up to the interceptor’s nose, that pain turned to anger. “No…the Party and the lies put me here. If they fear the West so much, how much of that is also a lie?”

Again he checked his compass, the map on his knee, and his fuel dial. Pavel clicked the stopwatch on his wrist to begin a timer, then pulled the Su-15 up to a hundred meters aloft. Now the crushing waves could not touch him, and the interceptor settled down its own tantrum.

 An hour later, Pavel engaged the only options he’d been able to conjure for when he was out of Soviet skies. Gently, he pulled the Su-15 up to seven thousand meters altitude and set his transponder to the International Distress Code he’d been taught ages ago. Then, biting his lip and waiting for something else to tear him from the night sky, Pavel turned south towards Norway. 

Quickly, his radio came alive with chatter of someone yelling at him in foreign-taught Russian that didn’t immediately make sense. The Su-15’s radar receiver also growled at him, telling Pavel the Norwegians were ready to blow his wings right off. He’d expected this much, and part of his soul even wished for it, just to end the infinite blackness behind him. 

Yet nothing reached out from below to rip him down. Instead, a coherent voice finally put together “Soviet aircraft, this is Royal Norwegian Air Force: maintain course and lower landing gear.”

Looking down towards the distant twinkling of settlement lights, the knife-edge wings of a F-104 came up next to Pavel, with another one creeping up on the other side of the Su-15, boxing it in.

“Understood, pilot. Complying with order.” Pavel responded, almost smiling as the interceptor’s landing gear cranked down into place. The Su-15 rocked and shook as it slowed, not wanting to be so restrained. But Pavel kept his gaze on his nose, only looking to his new escorts whenever they tipped their wings to turn or descend. He had no idea where they were leading him, and right now, he didn’t care.

Almost on cue, the first inklings of sunlight began to break over the horizon as Pavel’s nose lined up with a long strip of runway in the distance. He could see the many flashing lights and guards waiting on either side of the runway, waiting for him. Pavel’s heart was racing now, but his mind was calm as he guided 43 Red towards foreign soil.

“Welcome to Kirkenes, Comrade Soviet.” One of his escorts announced as the F-104s pulled away in tight loops to give Pavel room to land. 

“Nyet, not Soviet. Not anymore. Just Russian.” Pavel responded as the Su-15’s wheels touched pavement. Popping the drag chute to slow down, several trucks raced forward to meet him, making Pavel actually laugh at the fact he was still breathing. As the Su-15 finally slowed to a stop and the plane was surrounded, Pavel popped open the canopy to breathe the first taste of Western air.

****

My entry for the 2021 #shortstorychallenge, as hosted by Kate Johnson and Team Writer. We may have had the month to crank out 3K words, but for me it turned into: 5 days research, 20 days procrastination/panic, and 3 days of mad writing sprints whenever free time was available. Still, it was a blast to do, and I hope do to another one someday.

I hope you all enjoy.

2 thoughts on “The Defection of 43 Red

  1. Mayumi-H says:

    This was great, shade! Congratulations on completing the April TeamWriter challenge, and doing such a great job with it!

    I loved all the little character details you put in. Many of the men feel familiar but they are all also fresh. I think the brevity brings that home. Speaking of, the action and developments are quick without being rushed, meaning there’s still plenty of clarity to what’s happening. We do feel a lot of Pavel’s desperation and urgency, especially in his conversation with Yeven.

    I loved the line about Yeven biting the hand of the party! And the entire sequence where Pavel steals the fighter is solid classic adventure movie stuff. The icing on the cake for me is the exchange with the Norwegian ATC. When the first one speaks in Russian that doesn’t make sense to Pavel’s native ear was a fantastic little moment that had me grinning.

    I do wonder a little bit where Pavel’s story goes from here … but this also ends with enough finality that it works to leave the story as-is.

    Congrats again! This was a lot of fun to read. I hope it was just as much fun for you to write. 😀

    • Thank you so much, Mayumi!

      It was a fun exercise to be sure, and Kate gave me a lot of feedback to work with when I deep-dive into editing. If all goes well, this will be my 1st ever published piece when it’s done!

      I’ll be going in to expand on Yeven, the ATC conversation, and more of Pavel’s own life in the larger version, now that the limits are off in terms of word count. The escape itself could have been 3K words, so that will see more details as I re-look at this piece

      Pavel himself is a really fun character that I’d like to use more. Technically speaking, he’d still be around to help out Akula and company, if I work him in there.

      I’m so happy to read your feedback, and am overjoyed you enjoyed reading as much as I loved writing this one! Thank you again!

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