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Authors: Andy McDermott

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BOOK: The Valhalla Prophecy
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But it was no ordinary aircraft.

Designated Tu-95V, it was a one-of-a-kind variant, modified for a very special purpose. Its unique cargo was so huge that the bomb bay doors had been removed to accommodate it. Even stripped of all unnecessary
weight and with its four massive twin-prop engines working at full power, the Tupolev was strained to its limit to carry the terrifying payload.

Its official designation was uninformative: Article AN602. But it had acquired a nickname during its rapid development and construction.

The Tsar Bomba
. The Emperor of Bombs.

Twenty-six feet long and more than six feet in diameter, the Tsar Bomba weighed almost twenty-seven tons. This in itself made it the largest bomb ever constructed, almost three times as heavy as the British Grand Slam of the Second World War, but its size alone was no indication of its true destructive power.

It was a hydrogen bomb, the most powerful ever built.

The atomic device that destroyed Hiroshima had an explosive power of sixteen kilotons—the equivalent of sixteen thousand tons of TNT. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki twelve days later had a twenty-one-kiloton yield. The first-ever hydrogen bomb, detonated by the United States in 1952, had an explosive force of more than ten
megatons
—ten
million
tons of TNT.

The Tsar Bomba was ten times more powerful still.

It was so powerful, in fact, that it had been adjusted at the last minute to deliver only around half its maximum predicted yield to minimize fallout. But a detonation of a “mere” fifty megatons would still be more than ten times as much as the combined power of
all
the explosives used in World War II—including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

It was a bomb designed to destroy entire cities. But its current target was much more specific.

The spot marked by an ancient Norse runestone.

Volkov tugged back his sleeve to check his watch. Just after eleven twenty-five. If the weather didn’t turn, he would reach the waiting boat around midday. It would be night by the time he got to the mainland, but that didn’t matter. His CIA contact would be waiting for
him, and then his own journey to the West to join his wife would begin.

The possibility that he might never make it had of course occurred to him. To that end, he had written a letter to Galina, with the express instructions that it only be opened if the CIA confirmed his death. There were secrets he had kept even from her. He hoped she would understand why he had done what he had … but even if she did not, the die was already cast. She would learn what he had done. The letter was his explanation, his justification.

His excuse
, some part of his conscience sneered, but he forced the thought away. He had done what was necessary for his work.

He noticed that Surnin was again staring to the southwest—no, more to the west now. That meant the bomber was coming in from the ocean.

A bombing run? He dismissed the idea. The nuclear tests had been a recurring interruption of his work at the facility, all personnel evacuated the day before one took place and not permitted to return until at least a week after, once the local radiation levels had been declared safe. The senior staff were informed of upcoming tests well in advance; if one was planned, he would have known.

Volkov leaned to look over Surnin’s shoulder. The clouds ahead continued far out to sea, an impenetrable gray shield that would hide the fishing boat from watchers above. The aircraft was nothing to worry about.

A voice crackled in the pilot’s earphones. “One minute to drop. Confirm readiness.”

“I confirm readiness,” Major Andrei Durnovtsev replied, the calm professionalism of his voice masking his nervousness. All of the Tu-95’s crew, and that of the Tu-16 jet acting as an observation aircraft off to starboard, were volunteers—and it had been made very clear that there was a chance they might not make it
home. In theory, at the Tupolev’s maximum speed it would reach the minimum safe distance with a small margin to spare … but theory and practice were two different things.

“Message received,” came the reply. “Fifty seconds to drop. Wind speed and direction on your escape vector remain constant.” A pause, then: “Good luck.”

Durnovtsev did not reply, instead checking his instruments, preparing himself. The actual release of the bomb was controlled from the ground; his job was to fly the bomber on an exact heading, taking the prevailing winds into account so the Tsar Bomba would parachute down as close to its target as possible. Even though it could destroy an entire city the size of New York, for whatever reason his masters at the Kremlin wanted their superweapon to hit the right spot. A demonstration to the West of precision as well as power, he supposed.

All musings vanished at another radio message. “Thirty seconds to drop. Prepare for device release.”

“Confirm thirty seconds to release,” Durnovtsev replied before switching to the aircraft’s internal intercom. “Thirty seconds! All crew, secure stations and confirm readiness!”

One by one his men reported ready, all systems green. “Fifteen seconds,” said the ground controller. Durnovtsev’s stomach knotted, but he held his hands firmly on the controls, ready to act. One last check of the instruments. Everything was as it should be.

“Ten seconds!” A glance at the compass. The Tu-95 was now heading almost due east, curving in toward its target; to survive, he had to turn the lumbering bomber to the southwest as quickly and sharply as possible. “Drop in five seconds! Four! Three! Two! One—
drop
!”

The release mechanisms opened—and the Tupolev shot upward as twenty-seven tons of death fell from its gaping bomb bay.

A massive parachute snapped open in the slipstream the moment the bomb was clear of the fuselage. Barometric sensors would trigger the detonators at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet above sea level. But even
with the huge ’chute slowing it, the Tsar Bomba was still plunging earthward at a frightening speed, giving the bomber and its chase plane less than three minutes to reach safety.

If they could.

Durnovtsev had already slammed the flight controls hard over, throwing the Tu-95 into a sharp banking turn. The smaller Tu-16 held its course for a few more seconds, its cameras and observers tracking the bomb to make sure the parachute had deployed, before it too swung southwest. Its pilot immediately switched to full power, the jet rapidly outpacing the wallowing turboprop.

“The payload has been dropped and the parachute successfully deployed,” said the voice in Durnovtsev’s headphones, relaying the news from the second aircraft. “Estimated detonation in two minutes and forty seconds. Go to maximum speed and initiate blast procedure.” Then, barely audible: “God be with you.”

As a loyal communist Durnovtsev was not a believer, but he certainly appreciated the sentiment. The Tupolev came about to its escape heading; he leveled out, one hand pushing on the throttle levers to the detent. The Tu-16 was already shrinking into the distance.

The airspeed indicator showed that the Tu-95 was now traveling at just over 510 knots, its four mighty engines straining. “Begin blast procedure!” he ordered. Across the cockpit, his copilot pulled a pair of thick, almost opaque dark goggles down over his eyes. Durnovtsev waited until the insectile lenses were secure before donning his own. Day turned to night, the instruments barely visible through the tinted glass.

But he knew that the sky would become much brighter very soon.

Volkov stared up at the clouds again. Even over the sound of the dogs, he could now hear the bomber. The rumbling drone was subtly different, though. A Doppler shift; the aircraft was moving away from him.

He shook off a vague sense of unease. Whatever the
plane was doing, it could have nothing to do with him—or the reason he was here. He touched the steel cylinder’s case, making sure it was secured in place. It was. Reassured, he looked back as the sled crested a rise. The blackened remains of the facility stood out against the snow, the entrance to the pit an ominous yawning mouth. The runestone was a single broken tooth at its edge.

There was no sentiment as Volkov regarded his former workplace for the last time. What mattered above all else was the work itself; what he had discovered, and where it could lead.

He turned his back on the scene, a small smile rising. With the sample in his possession and a new life awaiting in the United States, that work would continue.

“Thirty seconds to detonation!” Durnovtsev barked into the intercom. “All crew, brace for blast!”

He pulled his seat belt straps as tight as they would go before clenching his hands back around the controls. The compass was an indiscernible shadow through the goggles, but holding the Tupolev on course was about to be the least of his concerns.

The ground controller continued the countdown. Twenty seconds. Ten. A last look around at the other crew in the cockpit. Dark shapes regarded him with impenetrable black eyes. One of the men in the seats behind him was holding a small cine camera, its lens pointed over Durnovtsev’s shoulder at the front windows. The pilot gave him a brief nod, trying to dismiss the thought that it might be the last time anyone ever saw his face, then looked ahead once more.

Five seconds. Four. Three—

Even through the heavily tinted goggles, the sky suddenly became as bright as the sun.

BOOK: The Valhalla Prophecy
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