Deep black

1

Taxiing on the ramp at Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia, Dashik Flight R7 looked like any other tired Russian jet, weighed down by creditors as well as metal fatigue. Anyone glancing at the exterior of the Ilyushin IL-62 as it bumped toward the runway would easily see that the craft was preparing for its last miles. Aeroflot’s faded paint scheme was still visible on the fuselage though the Russian airline hadn’t operated or even owned the craft for nearly a decade and a half. Shiny metal patches lined the lower wing and fuselage where repairs had been made, and there was a rather conspicuous dent next to the forward door on the right side of the plane. Though converted from passenger to cargo service aeons ago, the plane retained its windows. About half had been painted over halfheartedly; the rest were still clear, though a third of these were blocked by shades, most stuck at odd angles. A close inspection of the four Soloviev D-30K engines below the tail would reveal that they had recently been serviced, but that was clearly an anomaly—the tires on the landing gear had less tread than the average Hot Wheels car.

According to the details of the flight records filed with the authorities, the onetime airliner was now used primarily to fly parts west of the Ural Mountains. Tonight its manifest showed three crates of oil pumps and related machinery were aboard. They were bound for Vokuta, from which they would be trucked to their final destination, about thirty miles farther east. The crates had been duly inspected, though as usual the inspector had been somewhat more interested in the unofficial (though definitely mandatory) fee for his services than in the crates themselves.

Perhaps because of the weather, the inspection had been conducted in the airport cargo handling area before the plane was loaded. Had the inspector ventured into the aircraft itself, he would have found nothing unusual, except for the sophisticated glass wall of flight instruments lining the cockpit. Such improvements were out of place in an aged and obviously worthless craft, though since the inspector knew little about airplanes it was doubtful he would have drawn any such conclusion. Nor would he have been surprised to find that the door on the compartment aft of the flight deck could not be opened. Such doors and compartments were the rule rather than the exception. On discovering the door, his next step would have been to elicit an additional fee for overlooking it.

Dashik R7’s locked compartment held neither mafiya cash nor drugs, as the inspector would have guessed. Instead, a small fold-down seat and a long metal counter dominated the space; on the countertop were two large video screens, stacked one atop the other. They looked as if they had been taken from a home theater setup, but in fact the thick bundle of fiber-optic cables extruding from the sides was attached to a computer system whose parallel processing CPUs and flash-SRAM memory lined the full floor of the cargo bay. This computer system had no keyboard, accepting its commands through a special headset that could be used by only one person in the world. The beaked band at the top of the headset included sensors that analyzed both the operator’s voice and retinas; it would only communicate with the computer if they matched the configuration hard-wired into the computer’s circuits.

By no coincidence at all, the man the headset had been designed for sat in the locked compartment, waiting patiently as Dashik R7 gunned its finely tuned and subtly modified Solovievs a touch more aggressively than a casual