Climbing into the last truck with Amelin and a driver, the Russian captain remained silent, his eyes looking out into the surrounding blackness as the trucks rolled down the highway toward the city of Ternopil. A trip he was told that would take until the following evening. At Ternopil, another pair of Russian sleeper agents would meet with the eight men now traveling the dark Ukrainian highways.
Lev Zhernakov’s thoughts raced ahead at the risky mission deep across the enemy country. The people joining his group from the Ukraine were Russian nationals who had been planted in the country many decades ago and bided their time waiting the day they were to of service to their home nation. Some of the men had never set foot in the Motherland. Born of Russian parents who had been transplanted to the Ukraine in the mid-twentieth century during the KGB’s far-reaching secret sleeper initiative, but all the men, he was assured, were as dedicated to Russia as he was.
The final piece of the puzzle joined the team of Russian patriots at an abandoned farm on the outreaches of Ternopil. Zhernakov’s convoy split at a small town 50 kilometers away from the Ukrainian city. Each truck ordered to travel the remaining distance over different routes.
Zhernakov and Amelin exited the major highway 30 kilometers south and east of the smaller Ukrainian city, the final leg driven over a dusty, neglected gravel lane that avoided the urban center. Several times the back roads crossed the meandering Seret River, the same river the city of Ternopil sat alongside.
“Stop here,” Zhernakov instructed the driver and pointed to a trail leading into the bush. By his calculations, the rendezvous was less than couple kilometers way from the turnoff. The Special Forces leader took nothing for granted. The men he now traveled with and depended on were unknown to him and for all he knew could be collaborating with the enemy to capture the foreign Russian interlopers.
Zhernakov asked the driver to extinguish the truck lights, including the interior light and waited while the Western Ukrainian dusk pushed the daylight farther west for the night. “Wait here until I return,” he commanded before adding. "Have the other trucks wait with you when they arrive.”
Easing the door open he quietly slid from the cab of the truck. Zhernakov walked the short distance back to the gravel road where he stood among the dense bush lining the ditch and lit a cigarette. His eyes traveled the length of the gravel lane in both directions.
Satisfied at the emptiness of the country road, Zhernakov walked the grassy ditch, his body tight to the overgrown trees and slowly marched the remaining distance to the farmhouse.
Approaching the opening from a stand of shrubs he studied the layout. A short distance from the abandoned house stood a leaning barn of mud and straw on a stone foundation. Through the darkened entrance to the dilapidated building, The Special Forces captain noticed a corner of a bumper and a sliver of red from a taillight. In the quiet of the evening, hushed voices filtered from inside the barn and drifted across the overgrown yard to the bush where he lingered.
Zhernakov remained patient, his eyes constantly roving the bush around the deserted farm. His instincts buzzed. After all these years of living in a foreign country could these men still be trusted or did their loyalty now lie with others? With every breath, he fought the expectation of finding armed Ukrainian military hiding among the buildings and in the forest that surrounded the farm. An ambush was not the way he wanted this mission to end.
Methodically he swung his gaze from the farmhouse to the barn and then slowly studied the shadows of the out buildings. The mission was too important for him not to be cautious. After a time of surveying the grounds he gingerly crept along the cover of the trees edging closer to the barn and the voices.
Crouching in the long grass alongside the crumbling stonewall, he rose up and peered through a broken window. Two men lounged against a small cargo van. The pair’s actions told of boredom and time spent waiting not the hyped nervousness of a deceitfully laid trap. Zhernakov listened to the conversation, the men joked and talked in Russian.
Blending in with the night sounds, Zhernakov crept away from the barn and circled the rest of the farm buildings checking for any signs of a deception. His fears of an ambush pushed aside, for the time being, he entered the barn through the hanging wooden door.
An hour passed before he phoned Dimitri Amelin and requested the trucks driven to the site.
Zhernakov let the men sleep as he quietly left the house and wondered in the frosty morning mist. Dew on the long grass beaded and soaked the legs of his pants and the canvas sides of his boots adding to the morning chill. Ducking into the old stone barn, Zhernakov opened the back van door and lifted a tarp covering the equipment for the last stage of the mission.
With a grunt of satisfaction Lev Zhernakov marveled at the trunks cargo. Fishing in his shirt pocket he retrieved a crumpled pack of cigarettes. The brand was as close to the Russian cigarettes he smoked but like all things about the hated Ukraine, the cigarettes left a bad taste in his mouth. This country had a way of making everything wrong he fumed as he struck a match and lit the end.
Puffing on the cigarette, he closed his eyes and felt the nicotine flood into his body. With the smoldering match in his hand, he backed away from the trunk load of explosives, lungs full of cigarette smoke easing his tension. Leaning against the rickety barn wall, he contemplated the cargo in the back of the van, enough explosives and detonating equipment to start a small war. The Russian laughed at his unintentional joke. Wasn’t that the plan after all? A war the Ukrainians will never see coming he thought.
Zhernakov marched back into the house. The men and supplies were all gathered at this forgotten farmhouse in Western Ukraine. Time to share the details of the last part of the plan. The target area started a half-day drive from the remote farm and spread out for 50 kilometers in a westerly direction. The target, the large Ukrainian natural gas terminal that acted as the central hub for the nation's gas fields. Gas supplies were shipped from across the country to the terminal and then, in turn, shipped onward in above ground pipelines to supply the insatiable European market.
The mission, Zhernakov realized, bordered on industrial espionage. With the Ukrainian terminal destroyed and the natural gas supply severely disrupted Europe would have little choice but to crawl back to Russia for fuel to heat their homes and run their power plants?
With the men divided up into three groups, the Russian captain sent the first truck heading west with specific instructions. Each small band left the farmhouse at staged intervals. Zhernakov wasn’t foolish or egotistical enough to try attack or even attempt to sabotage the main terminal. The Ukrainians guarded the sprawling industrial behemoth with more firepower than they sent to patrol the border between the two countries. No. The plan was much simpler. Zhernakov’s plan would use the overland gas pipelines to his advantage.
The men had kept busy through the early morning hours. The first part of the agenda required the cargo trucks transformed from the standard white to a colored striping and matching decals of the Ukrainian government service fleet. Meticulous details were studied and applied to matching the vehicles before license plates stolen from a government maintenance shop and then switched in place of the originals. As the time drew near the men donned the emblazoned uniforms of the government run Gas coop.
The first truck left the abandoned farm one hour ahead of the second team. Their trip was the longest and would take the men farther to the west, kilometers past the heart of the Ukrainian gas complex. The second team was prepped to leave at a designated time followed by Zhernakov and his crew. A day of long travel and tense nerves kept Zhernakov focused as the pieces of the most crucial part of the mission unrolled.
5 kilometers due east of the mega natural gas plant, Russian Special Forces captain Lev Zhernakov gave the word to the truck driver to pull off the road and into an empty field. Under the star-filled sky, he left the truck; his radio tuned to a unique frequency and stared at the stars waiting for progress reports from the other two crews.
A couple of hours after midnight Zhernakov relayed the final orders. The three teams of saboteurs used the cover of darkness as they drove the trucks across empty roads and through fields distributing the cargo from the backs of the trucks. Each team assigned predetermined destinations along the miles of exposed banks of pipelines using GPS coordinates to target the vulnerable sections of infrastructure.
After achieving their task, Zhernakov’s team drove back east from the target and parked at a chosen rendezvous, a flat mountain that looked west in the direction of Lviv and the large Donets Gas Cooperative. The first team to leave the farmhouse had already been in contact with Zhernakov their task accomplished. By four a.m. the second of the remaining crews returned, their jobs as well, complete.
Checking his watch, Special Forces captain Zhernakov dug three remote transmitters out from the inside of his coat and stuffed them in his front pocket. The time of truth was near. With a slight tremble to his fingers, the Russian fished a cigarette loose and stuck it between his lips. Cupping his hands to shield the flame he flared his lighter and drew on the slender white tube of tobacco until it glowed.
A drop of sweat ran the length of his face as his lungs filled with tobacco smoke. As an obedient soldier he had never questioned his orders, but then again his orders never gave him second thoughts as what he was about to accomplish. His training was for armed sorties into hostile environments, the rescue of his fellow countryman. This plan was sabotage plain and simple. And even with his naturally born hatred of the Ukrainian people, he would never wish what was about to take place upon any human in any country.
Zhernakov glanced at the hands on his watch again. Taking a long drag off the cigarette, he palmed the transmitter marked 1. The minute hand ticked to the top of the hour. Zhernakov applied pressure with his thumb on the remote's button. He held his thumb down until the button glowed green.
Off in the distance, a trace of light flared and then vanished, followed by a series of eruptions to the west of the gas plant. He passed the remote and dug out the second one. Repeating the procedure a second series of flare-ups filled the starless night sky. Now the waiting, time was required for the final part of the plan to set up. With the miles of gas lines spewing the flammable, toxic gas into the surrounding area, a required amount of time for the build-up of a vapor cloud. The weather over the region had cooperated, no wind to dissipate the accumulating gas.
Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. After twenty-nine minutes had marched by, Zhernakov readied the final remote. His thumb held poised over the small black plastic box. With his eyes glued to the minute hand of his watch, he sucked in a lung full of air, slowly letting the breath out as his thumb squeezed the red button. The button flashed green. Immediately he raised his eyes to the western horizon.
The men in his group joined his vigil. Seconds seemed like hours. A slight breeze rattled leaves. The peaceful night sky suddenly erupted in a bright white and orange explosion. From across the countryside, a roar rose from the ground in the west and rode the tops of the trees until it reverberated against the mountain walls. The sound followed closely by loud, volatile eruptions of miles of above ground steel gas pipelines.
Zhernakov dipped his head. The thought of countless lives that he suspected would perish by his hand. Grimly he ordered his men back into the trucks.
A new Canadian Author with too many ideas in his head. Surprising even himself with where his stories go.