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NIGHT FLIGHT TO FREEDOM
By Thomas Jackson Slaybaugh
Copyright © 2004 Thomas Jackson Slaybaugh
All right reserved.
0120 HOURS SEPT 12, 1985
Major Herl Vladosk drew in a deep breath, then exhaled forcefully. Momentarily, some relief. No way could he completely escape tension. As a military pilot in the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics he lived under an invisible pressure blanket. Unseen eyes were everywhere.
Even up here. At 11,800 meters, alone in his MIG 23 fighter, he was being tracked by ground radar. The deep breath broke the steady swish, swish of his breathing in the oxygen mask. In the black, moon-less sky over eastern Russia the only other sound was the soft, steady whine of his jet engine.
"Stargazer One, Firebed Control, Over."
The voice in his earphones was crisp and clear.
"Stargazer One," he acknowledged.
"Stargazer One, you are 100 kilometers from the station; cleared to descend to 3,000 meters at pilot's discretion."
"Stargazer One," he acknowledged.
Then, on impulse, the idea came to him. His mind calculated the risk. Worth it. His lips parted, crinkling his mouth in a rare smile. He cut power to idle, extended speed brakes and rolled inverted. His weight sagged against the harness. The nose dropped and he added back-pressure on the stick to pull out level. He had completed a split S and was headed in the opposite direction. Immediately he rolled inverted again to repeat the maneuver. Watching the altimeter, he played back-pressure to level at 3,000 meters. Descent completed.
"Stargazer One, three thousand meters," he reported.
"Stargazer, Firebed Control. Understand, 3,000 meters. We show you still at 100 kilometers. Do you confirm?"
"Confirm, 3,000 meters 100 kilos." He grinned, knowing they were trying to figure out how he had descended over 8,000 meters and was still the same distance out.
Then Vladosk's smile vanished as a new thought popped into his mind. He would not be surprised if his squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Vladimer Roystock, was in the control room watching the flight. Roystock was deathly afraid of any infraction that might be traced to him, and desperately anxious for promotion. Seemingly, he never slept.
The party line was inflexible. Hew to it absolutely and you could move up the ladder. One slip and your career would end. All the pilots knew of Roystock's predecessor. He had taken a plane up for a maintenance test flight. For ten minutes he flew a wild, non-programmed acrobatic routine. When he landed the aircraft records had been impounded. No flight control maintenance had been performed. There was no need for flight maneuvers; merely engine calibration checks. That squadron commander had been flown to division headquarters the next morning.
Roystock took over. No explanation was given. No questions were asked.
Vladosk pursed his lips. He had just performed Split S maneuvers; anything but a normal descent pattern. A touch of a smile returned. He may have been trained to be an almost robot, to act and react on cue, but once in a while he rebelled. After all, as a fighter pilot, some chance taking is a normal trait.. If carefully planned, and precisely executed, risk can be minimal.
To hell with Roystock.
"Stargazer One, crossing station outbound, fifteen hundred meters" he reported when a needle on one of the panel dials swung from nose to tail.
His every attention was now riveted on his flight instruments. Dutifully he followed radioed instructions. It was drilled into him to trust ground controllers implicitly and follow all instructions to the letter. He would, but not with blind faith. He had an underlying picture of the approach terrain as a safeguard against any mistake the controller might make. The controller could be reprimanded, relieved of duty, imprisoned; but as a pilot he had no options. If he flew into the ground he would be dead. And it would be called pilot error.
Ten kilometers out, descending, the star-studded canopy disappeared as he slid into the cloud deck, At twelve kilometers the controller turned him around and brought him back on a southerly heading. He crossed the beacon again, descent slowed by speed brakes and flaps. He pushed the gear control into the down and locked position. His eyes checked the three green gear lights when he felt the thump as the struts locked into position.
At 230 meters he slid out of the cloud deck. A long, slender rectangle of white lights outlined the runway directly ahead.
Robot like he continued to follow the controller's instructions, blending in his own visual inputs.
After a slight chirp of tires Vladosk eased the nose down. He switched frequencies to follow Ground Control instructions as he taxied back on the runway. When he crossed the ramp the huge hanger doors slid open. Inside a ground crewman held two red wands over his head. Vladosk taxied in and when the wands crossed he braked to a stop and cut his power. The doors closed behind him. A tug would move his MIG to his hanger parking spot.
As he unbuckled he recognized Roystock striding across the hanger. There was no mistaking his squadron commander. The five foot six figure moved at its customary brisk pace, body erect, shoulders back. "Little Napoleon," was the whispered description among the pilots.
Vladosk swallowed against a quick tightness in his throat. Could Vladosk have detected his unusual descent procedure? If so he would have to squirm his way out.
"Good flight, major?" Roystock asked the question before Vladosk was out of the cockpit.
"Routine, sir." Vladosk answered, not looking at his commander as he stepped out on the ladder.
Vladosk took his time coming down the ladder, his back to Roystock. He carried his helmet in his left hand, the mask hanging from a snap on one side and the hose dangling. His reddish-brown hair was matted from the helmet. By the time he stepped to the hanger floor his composure had returned to erase the squint from his blue-gray eyes and the deep furrows in his brow.
"Follow me, major." Roystock turned on his heel and stalked away.
Vladosk followed, his six foot, two inch figure dwarfing that of the commander,. "Just another one of his little jabs to try to keep everyone uncomfortable," Vladosk told himself as he followed, frowning again.
An urge like the one that had prompted him to make the Split S descent flashed through his mind. This urge was to place a foot against the butt of the little man ahead and shove hard.
Roystock was a no mistake guy. That was why he was here. That was why he was a Lieutenant Colonel at age 26, outranking many officers much older. Was he only a member of the military? Or was he also secret police, or possibly the dreaded KGB or MVD. No one knew and no one dared ask, even if of a fellow pilot. Every unit was infiltrated with its hidden intelligence agents. That was common knowledge. That was repeatedly made clear by the political advisors. But who? It could be your closest friend. The point was pounded home time and time again: Don't step out of line, ever.
"Here, in my office," Roystock directed, holding the door. "Let's look at your flight track. I have it set for playback."
Vladosk said nothing. He sat down facing the monitor. A runway was displayed at the lower center and the homing beacon as a dot above it.
"We pick you up coming in from 197 degrees," Roystock said, using a pointer to indicate the yellow blip moving from the bottom of the screen. "Speed 530." He waited, watching Vladosk and occasionally glancing at the screen.
Vladosk kept his eyes on the screen, watching the yellow blip as it moved. The pace slowed, stopped, reversed, stopped, then continued on the original course at a reduced speed.
"You report three thousand meters," Roystock said, pointing at the moving blip. When the blip crossed the beacon Roystock said, "You cross the beacon outbound. He waited, then, "you make your turn and come back for a straight in approach to the runway." He flicked a switch. "Anything unusual, anything at altitude, wind-shear maybe?"
Roystock was fishing. Vladosk was certain. If only he dared smile. He didn't. "No, nothing significant, sir. A touch of clear air turbulence at altitude,"
"Your descent track, a little unusual, don't you think?"
"Oh, yeah, I was pretty close in, reversed momentarily descending. Didn't want to overshoot the station."
Roystock waited; his eyes boring into Vladosk. Finally, he said, "Very well, major, see you at eight. Get a good night's rest."
"Eight? It's two now."
"Political meeting for all personnel. Check the bulletin board before you leave."
Roystock was striding from the room as Vladosk spoke.
Vladosk swallowed against a sudden bitter taste as he walked down the hall to check the bulletin board. Nothing new, except the notice about the meeting. He rubbed his eyes when he left he building and walked toward his old, black car. Again the feeling that unseen eyes were watching was particularly strong. He had lived with that feeling ever since he could remember. It was a way of life. He was used to it, but he did not like it, especially now.
He drove to his quarters, his mind still on the debriefing by Roystock. He shook his head, as if to throw it from his mind. He didn't want to take it to Velma, or their two children, Stan, eight and Vera, six.
He parked in his numbered spot, got out and locked the car. He stood for a moment, breathing deeply of the damp night air before climbing the steps to the apartment.
His key worked the lock with a faint click. He let himself in and closed and locked the door.
"Herl?" Velma's voice came softly through the darkness. As usual she had left the bedroom door partially open, waiting for him.
"Yes," he replied, only loud enough to reassure her. He went into the bathroom, took care of his toilet, cleaned his teeth and changed into pajamas Velma had hung on the back of the door. For a long moment he studied his face in the mirror. There was red in the whites of his eyes from the long hours and concentration on instruments in the MIG's cockpit. His hair was still mussed. He picked up a comb, then put it back and ran his fingers though his hair.
His unseen-eyes feeling was not nearly so strong now. Once inside his quarters, with the door locked, there was reprieve. Not complete - it was never complete - but better here than anywhere else. He slipped into bed, instantly sensing Velma's warm softness.
They snuggled close, her left arm going around his chest.
"I'm glad you are back, my husband." Her voice was husky.
"You should have been asleep."
"Soon," she replied. Her fingers explored until they worked a button loose and her hand rested on the bare flesh over his heart
"I love you," he said, his lips tickled by the hair near an ear.
"And I love you." Velma lay quietly a few moments, then asked, "What's the matter, darling?"
"Nothing ... why?"
"There's something, I know." Her hand began caressing. "You are so tight. Want to talk about it?"
"No, it's nothing, really."
They lay quietly for several minutes. Finally Vladosk said, "Honey."
"I don't want to talk a about it. I really don't know what it is to talk about. But could I hold you close ... real close?"
"Sure. You know you can." She squirmed closer.
"Quickly," Vladosk said, "no pajamas. Just us, close as we can be."
They sat up in bed, disrobing completely in the dark, then snuggled into each other's arms under the blankets.
"There's nothing to talk about," Vladosk said. "At least I don't know how. But I want to shut out the whole world. I want just you and me as one in our own little world where nobody can see in."
Very slowly they moved; the warmth of each body warming through the other. Velma gently massaged the back of her husband's neck with thumb and forefinger. "Honey," she said, brushing her lips against his left ear, "please relax. I can feel the tenseness in you." She continued rubbing. "There, that's better," She let her hand slide down his back.
Neither spoke for a long time. Finally, Velma said, pressing her body against his, "Darling, I need you - so much."
Herl kissed her; a long, hungry kiss as he gently moved to answer her request.
Later, still in each other's arms, he said, softly, his lips brushing her hair, "You are the best medicine I have ever known." He squeezed her close, causing her breath to exhale forcibly, before he rolled on his back to stare up at the dark ceiling.
"Thank you, darling," Velma said. "And you are my best medicine, too."
A few minutes later Velma asked. "Herl, are you still awake?"
He started. He had been holding her hand, his body just touching hers. He had shut out any thoughts of the outside world. This was as close to peace as he had known in a long time. Velma had been so quiet and still he did not know she was still awake.
"I was thinking. Do you suppose today - that is if it is nice - we could go on a picnic?" Just us and the children. I'll fix lunch. If we could find a nice, quiet spot in the woods where we could be alone. I would like that."
Herl felt the tightening of Velma's fingers on his hand. He pictured the scene; alone, with his family. He felt the old tightness coming back as he knew what he had to say. "I would like nothing better," he said, taking her hand in his, "but I forgot to tell you. I have to be at a meeting in the morning. He grimaced, remembering Roystock's reminder. "There is a Zampolit meeting at eight."
"Couldn't you miss it, just once?"
"Honey, you know I can't'
"Yes, I'm sorry. I know."
"Maybe," Herl said, "if the meeting is over in time and there is nothing else, we could still have a picnic." He paused, recalling again the delight Roystock seemed to be having in no notice demands on members of the squadron. "I will just have to wait and see."
"I thought, possibly," Velma's voice broke. "Well, the other day Stan had a sore throat and missed a Komosol meeting and he made it up later. Of course the make up session was twice as long. "Oh," she shuddered, "just wishful thinking. I know you must go."
Vladosk rolled on his side, putting an arm around his wife. "Darling," he said. "I will be back just as soon as I can and, I promise you, we will have a family picnic soon ... maybe even today." He stayed on his side, his arm around her and, finally, sleep came to both.
SEPT. 12, 0800 HOURS
The battle started. It took place in Vladosk's mind. One side was the force for attention, on the other the force for inattention. The struggle was triggered when the political advisor began the meeting.
"American imperialists continue to strive for world domination: over the small, helpless countries of South America where they send military advisors, arms and money; in South Africa where they encourage dissension and revolt, Western Europe where they continue to pressure for nuclear weapons deployment...."
The speaker droned on.
Vladosk clamped his teeth together. He had to listen. He had heard it all before, over and over. But he dared not let his mind drift completely. The fact that the communist political propaganda theme coursed through his mind just as blood coursed through his body made no difference. His thinking strayed to last night and pleasant memories, then to the forthcoming picnic. Then a disciplined pinprick of conscience brought his attention back to the talk of the political advisor.
Past embarrassing experiences required minimal attention. If the speaker suspected anyone of not paying attention he had the nasty habit of calling for a comment on what he had just said. It would be no time to fumble. Punishment was immediate; at least a ten minute report on the virtues of communist doctrine, or a ten page report by the next morning, or special duty, or restrictions. There was no limit on the retribution the political officer could meet out, and absolutely no recourse. A ten-page report together with an oral report on the Siberian lifestyles of political prisoners had been Vladosk's lot once when he had been caught. Since that experience, two years ago, he worked hard to keep a mental wall in place to prevent complete mind wandering.
"Even in their country people are frustrated and helpless in the face of American imperialistic policies and practices...." The speaker continued his dry monotone. At that point Vladosk's tide of battle turned sharply in favor of inattention. He watched a bird fluttering its wings as it landed on a tree limb outside the window to his right. He thought of Velma and the picnic she had asked for.
Excerpted from NIGHT FLIGHT TO FREEDOM by Thomas Jackson Slaybaugh Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Jackson Slaybaugh. Excerpted by permission.
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