In ancient Greek mythology, Icarus escaped his earthly captivity with the assistance of bird-like wings until he flew too high, where the wings were destroyed by the heat of the sun.
But to the international intelligence community, Icarus represented the opportunity to transport armies and their equipment with incredible scale and speed. It was a game changer for governments looking for ways to shift the balance of power, and no price was too high.
Siberian summers are painfully brief. The snows linger into May, and cold weather returns again in September, transforming the terrain into a desolate still life. The endless forests of straggly pine and birch are peppered with hibernating bears and ravenous wolves, and the wind is utterly cruel. The Siberian forest stretches over five million square miles from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions to points as far south as Mongolia. It reaches from the Urals in the west to the Pacific in the east. With the exception of just a few towns, that vast area of wilderness is home to only a few thousand people.
Ben Dawson and Jim “Chief” Romero clambered through the foothills of the steep-sided Ural Mountains approaching an off-limits Russian R&D facility near Mezhgorye. For two days, the men had been negotiating trails and back roads along white water rivers that ran in torrents through local valleys, and skirting slick, icy bogs. The weather had been favorable and they had made good progress. But Dawson was increasingly wary, alert to the possibility of being discovered as they grew closer to their target. The last few miles went more slowly as the men carefully picked their way along, avoiding obvious choke points. Choke points—narrow openings between boulders and trees—afforded placement opportunities for concealed tripwires, motion sensors, electric eyes, and other remote sensing equipment.
Dawson and Romero both wore mountain camouflage and substantial backpacks, laden with electronic gear and weapons that would have been impossible to explain if they were captured. Consequently, the backpacks themselves were rigged to explode and utterly destroy their contents if they were removed from the bodies of their bearers without the entry of a preassigned four-digit code within thirty seconds. Dawson was a former operative of the US National Security Agency, and still worked closely with the NSA on assignments as a part of his official “day job” at a research and development firm called the Brystol Foundation. The Brystol Foundation developed world-changing technologies, often with strong US national security dimensions, and most often under contract with US intelligence agencies. Usually, these technologies were discovered and matured through typical research or through pure monetary acquisition. But on some occasions, when the technology was found to be under development by entities unfriendly to the West, less traditional means were employed to acquire them. That happened when the technology was perceived to be extremely dangerous to western interests and to US national security interests in particular. This excursion represented one such event.
Dawson was not as worried about direct human observation. Even in the colder months, the forest in this area was thick enough to swallow whole armies of foot patrols, and his recon man, Billy Winger, was well out ahead of them. Winger was a former Delta Force operator who worked for the NSA in Eastern Europe and Soviet satellite countries for several years. Then he was reassigned to Kabul and Baghdad through the “noisy” period between 2003 and 2009. He left the agency after nearly a decade to marry, and regretted the union almost immediately. The marriage lasted only a year, but Winger had burned some bridges with his abrupt departure, and never looked back. He worked freelance contract assignments for the CIA and FBI for a short time thereafter, when Ben Dawson began to use him for Brystol Foundation work. Since those events in 2011, the men had become close friends. These days, Winger was a member of a private security outfit called Kelly & Gerard Enterprises, LLC. Romero, a recently retired US Army Ranger, also worked for the firm. Lily Gerard, who ran the small security company, was Dawson’s paramour and confidant, and Dawson—as security director for the Brystol Foundation—was Kelly & Gerard Enterprises’ primary client.
As they crested a rise about two kilometers from the target facility, Dawson and Romero both heard a series of chirps in their earbuds. Two steady chirps followed by three short chirps, each one tone higher in pitch than the preceding tone. Winger had arrived at their destination. Dawson and Romero smiled at one another momentarily, and moved on. The GPS-based device on Dawson’s wrist indicated they were close, and headed in the right direction. The forest was still thick, as they remained well below the timberline, but the terrain was leveling off which made breathing a lot easier. Dawson was still in good physical condition, but he was well into his fifties, and carrying a substantial load. As the air got thinner, he and Romero could feel the effects of the two days on rocky inclines in their lungs and legs. They were both looking forward to shedding their backpacks for a while.
Dusk was falling, and the canopy of leaves and pine needles hastened darkness in the forest. Romero was the first to spot the ancient hunter’s cabin where Winger was already setting up shop. As they approached, Dawson could see why the intel guys from Langley had been so high on this location. Getting the information had required his friend and former boss at NSA, Charles Jennings, to call in a favor from CIA Deputy Director John Deering. The intel was solid, and Dawson couldn’t help smiling as he thought about how the cabin would sound in a travel brochure. Unspoiled rustic beauty set in a pristine paradise, he thought. Personally, I’d prefer running water and electricity. But this was exactly where they needed to be, and given the blanket of overhanging branches, the tiny thermal signature from their small chemical heating unit would be undetectable from airborne surveillance drones. He could see one such drone tethered to the ground in the distance, fixed in position about four hundred meters in the air above the facility. There were also two towers on the site, bristling with antennae and camera arrays. There was no direct line of sight from the cabin, but the view was unobstructed from an outcropping just a few yards away.
“Zdravstvujtye!” Winger said, greeting Romero and Dawson as they entered the cabin. Winger was the only man on the team who spoke Russian, and he readily admitted he was quite rusty at that. But with any luck the men wouldn’t need to converse with the locals on this mission. The cabin was in better shape inside than it appeared from the exterior. The bottom two feet of each wall was stone which gave way to rough-hewn timbers reaching to the low, vine-and-moss-covered roof. Patches of what had once been a wolf pelt adorned one wall, and a crude stone fireplace stood in one corner. The building had one small window with no glass, and the sagging door had old rusty hinges which appeared as though they could disintegrate at any moment. A latch was fashioned from a piece of leather and a wooden peg.
Winger had been setting up camp. He’d stretched a thin foil-like sheet into an arc shape just in front of the fireplace over the stones, and placed their chemical heater on the floor there. He was just putting together a crude table from a rotting, discarded plank, using some fallen tree branches for somewhat precarious legs.
Dawson and Romero gratefully shed their cargo, carefully entering the appropriate codes to disengage the self-destruct devices, and then began to help. Within a few minutes, the men had a workable base camp with heat, light, and usable bedding laid out for the night. Then they walked outside to survey the surrounding area. The outcropping was the most obvious observation point, but was also the place where detection would be easiest from the vantage point of the drones or the tower-based cameras. Off to one side there was a stand of pine trees forming a thick wall of visual cover, and Romero dragged a couple of suitable stones into position to form seats beneath the boughs of the tallest tree. By the time he finished, Dawson and Winger were already scanning the valley in front of them with binoculars, shifting back and forth between normal and night vision modes owing to the twilight.
Dawson could see men entering and leaving a high-bay, flat-roofed structure with oversized doors. The foot traffic seemed to be picking up there, while it diminished around the other buildings. The area lights over a small parking area and along a chain-link fence surrounding the site came to life, and Dawson was able to count two sentries along each fence line, one of which was accompanied by a German shepherd. The fence was topped with razor wire. All of the sentries wore Russian Army uniforms, and they were armed with AK-74 rifles and automatic pistols. “Hmpf,” Winger wondered aloud, “when did they start carrying Strizh pistols?”
“What’s amazing is you can make that out from here, Billy,” Dawson said. “I can tell they have pistols, but I sure can’t tell what kind.”
“The grip is different than their old 443 Grachs,” Winger continued. “Steeper rake. I’ve seen ‘em before, but never fired one.”
“Well,” Dawson said, “if the intel is correct, the show should be starting in about an hour. I guess we might as well eat. Who wants first shift?”
“I had a Clif Bar on the trail a while back, so I’m fine,” Romero replied. “I’ll keep an eye out.” He settled in on one of the newly acquired rocks and raised his binoculars to peer out from beneath the branches.
“OK. Thanks, Chief,” Dawson said, and he returned with Winger to the cabin. They broke open stripped-down Meals, Ready-to-Eat—MREs—and used the chemical packets to heat their meals. “Teriyaki chicken,” Winger smiled. “Not bad!”
After about thirty minutes, Dawson headed back outside with a cup of coffee for Romero while Winger began to set up equipment on the makeshift table.
Romero hadn’t moved, and reminded Dawson of a statue he once saw of Indian Chief Black Hawk looking out over the Mississippi River Valley in Rock Island, Illinois. It made the moniker of “Chief” even more fitting. Romero earned the name “Chief” when he was coming up through the Army and it had stuck. He was a tough, grizzled fifty-two-year-old widower with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and tanned, chiseled features. He was a serious man and quiet most of the time, but the thing Dawson loved about him was he was as predictable as the sunrise. He never flinched, never wavered, and always did exactly as he said he would do. Less than two years earlier, Romero had gritted his teeth and helped Dawson and Winger rescue a badly wounded soldier from Iran, even after his own ribs had been cracked by the concussive force of a grenade. “Hey, Boss,” he said, still looking out through the binoculars. “They’re about to bring something out of that big building down there.” Then noticing the hot coffee, he said: “Thanks,” and handed the field glasses over.
Dawson could see Romero was right. The Russian soldiers had rolled back the wide, heavy doors. Technicians wearing civilian coats were hustling in and out, talking and calling out to one another while making arrangements of some kind. While Dawson watched, Winger approached from the cabin. “Go ahead and grab an MRE if you want, Chief,” he said. He was carrying a short tripod and a small electronic device to mount atop it. Winger unfolded the tripod and got it set up, and Dawson stopped looking through the binoculars long enough to assist with the balance of the setup. Thin fiberglass rods were assembled into hoops forming three concentric circles of different sizes, the largest of which was about two feet in diameter. Then they were arranged by Winger and attached to connecting support strips forming a cone-shaped frame. The frame was then fitted with a set of heavy duty foil sheets, interconnecting in a curved pattern, producing a parabolic dish. One coaxial wire attached the dish to the electronic device Winger had carried out of the cabin with him, and another connected the camera beneath it. Winger flipped a switch on the side of the unit. In a matter of minutes, they had established a powerful ground-based surveillance station with a compact night vision camera and a parabolic microphone pointed toward the scene unfolding on the ground below. Winger watched the meter on the top of the electronic module as it displayed signal strength while he adjusted the dish in small increments, swinging it back and forth until he had achieved the best reception. Then he began to listen in earnest through a headset as the device connected to the parabolic microphone monitored and recorded the conversations almost a half mile below them. Between the electronic signal boosting and filtering capabilities of the device, the fidelity of the sound was startling. He could make out some of the phrases, but many of the snippets were scientific in nature, and meaningless to him.
About thirty minutes elapsed before they heard a big diesel engine rumble to life, and a Russian T-72 tank crawled slowly out of the building and stopped a few yards away. When it appeared, Romero issued a low whistle.
“What have we here?” Winger added.
Dawson saw the reason for their surprise immediately. The tank had undergone some major modifications. It had always had relatively low ground clearance—about nineteen inches—and stood just over seven feet at its tallest point. But this vehicle looked to be well over ten feet in height—perhaps closer to eleven. The lower body of the tank had been extended by roughly three feet in height. Dawson couldn’t imagine what could be considered so valuable it warranted such a design change. It would have been exceptionally expensive, it shifted the center of gravity to a much higher position, and it substantially altered the vertical opening requirement for transport vehicles. What could be worth such an investment? Tanks were recognized to be falling behind in terms of their value as a war-fighting tool in the face of airborne weapon systems and cyber warfare. It was hard to imagine why anyone would pour a great deal more into R&D on such an aging platform.
But as they watched, another sound—a crackling like electrical arcing—reached them, and all of the ground technicians stepped back from the tank. What happened next was an event Dawson and his companions would remember for the rest of their lives.