“Damnit, man. I was an inch away from heaven,” Roman says as he looks at his bloodied wound, grinning.
Backs facing the frigid dirt wall, we sit, crammed together in a damp trench half a meter below the battlefield. The snow rimming the trench wall above melts all over my jacket, and all over Roman’s ushanka fur hat. The guy doesn’t care one bit. Like most of us, Roman is familiar with the feeling of frigid water creeping through his shirt and penetrating his skin. But it has bothered me ever since we got down here. The amalgamation of mud and melting snow smells and feels horrible. Being a good twelve centimeters taller than the average grunt, I can’t move to get rid of that crap in my undershirt unless I want to take a bullet to my head.
The bullet Roman took found its way into his shoulder. The fucker should’ve been dead the moment he was hit and dove headfirst into the mud. But by some miracle, the shooting stopped as I dragged him back into the trench.
At least we were safe. For now. Or so I thought.
As I scrape the mud off Roman’s shoulder, his head wobbles, a clear sign of dizziness. Blood leaks through the mud, and I press my palm on the crimson liquid.
“Damn,” he mumbles. “I’m no doc, man, but this don’t look dandy.”
The loudspeaker crackles to life, and the voice of Lieutenant Commander Petrov resounds, “The initial wave has been repelled!” The discord of anti-tank missiles crashing on cold, hard metal lulls, almost to a halt. Footsteps squelch through the sludge before more soldiers slither from the battlefield to the relative shelter of our trench. Fresh snow clings to their uniforms, making them look like green leopards with white spots. The snow runs red where a couple of guys who had their legs blasted away make feeble attempts to crawl down to safety. No one bothers to help them. We all know they’ll end up freezing or bleeding to death before they make it.
A few meters from us are the feet of a corpse dangling over stacks of sandbags on the ground. A soldier yanks the feet downward, and the rigid body thumps on the ground. He catches me looking and mutters, “Couldn’t leave the mal’chik dead up there. The kid’s gonna be riddled with holes.”
Why am I here? I ask myself. Not for the first time. I ask the same question at least five times every day. What business does a cave dweller have, three thousand kilometers from home? I was ‘produced’ in the backwoods of Murmansk. I shouldn’t have even been Russian. If I had dropped from the military truck transferring breeding specimens and rolled a few meters to the left, I would have been Finnish, adopted a Finnish name, and lived a peaceful life in the forestry industry. The Finnish can’t fight—except for that one time back in 1940, but we don’t talk about that—and they won’t resort to fighting even if you place their testicles under a guillotine blade. A life without the crackling of gunfire every three seconds . . . that should’ve been my life.
But here I am, fifteen years since leaving my glass cage, questioning every single life choice leading to me becoming a hunting dog, wading across the country, and slaughtering for others. If not for my undercover mission, I wouldn’t even be here.
I’m not a soldier for the Republic of Tatarstan. I’m a contract killer. Nobody lasts long in our profession, and after seven years, my luck’s bound to run out. Especially when I have six days left to complete this critical mission, one that I’ve made zero progress on aside from befriending a random soldier in this facility.
It seems that Roman has spotted my fatigue. “Yo, Alexei, ya good? Are ya hurt anywhere?”
“Worry about yourself first.”
“You ain’t looking like yourself.”
“Can you shut up? I’m trying to save your life here.”
My newest friend is still damn lucky not to have dropped dead on the spot. I’m praying that an artery hasn’t been hit, but as I get the mud off, it’s clear that’s not the case. Blood spurts from the wound like a stream before I can rip a piece of cloth from Roman’s trouser hem and press it on the wound. I stuff it in as deep as I can, hoping that the bleeding will stop.
“Heh, ya know—” He wipes his lips. “—you could’a been a good medic if you weren’t a sniper.” He scouts my expression.
“Stop. Fucking. Moving!” I yell as a shrieking explosion erupts overhead. “Did you even know you got shot? Fucking airhead!”
“Oh, this? This ain’t nothing but a scratch.” Roman doesn’t mind my insults—he never does—and keeps peering at my face with those doe-like eyes of his. It used to annoy me a lot, but once I realized it was Roman’s unique way of showing affection, I came to terms with it.
Roman runs his finger across my cheek, but I press him back. He always tries that, but I’ve never allowed myself to even tolerate it. There’s a limit to how much you should care for someone.
“Hey, I know how ya look, dumbass. Ya might look like a lot of things, but ya ain’t never looked like ya head has been bashed into a sack of shit before. Ya got a problem, pal.”
“What do you mean I have a problem? Those assholes just poked a damn hole through your shoulder!” I said, “You know . . . you must’ve noticed you’re the only one around here who acts like they’re in heaven all the damn time, right?”
I’ve only known him for four months, but four months in a war is enough to have a good grasp of any character. For all I know, Roman might have an actual problem. There’s no reason for him to be so bubbly. It disgusted the hell out of Commander Dzyuba, who sentenced him to one-week latrine duty. And the more disgusting thing was that the guy smiled and hummed through the entire week of wiping off other people’s shit.
Only a fool smiles all the time, they say.
“Whaddya mean?” He grins from ear to ear, “Everyone ’round here deserves a lil bit o’ sunshine and sparkles, if you catch my drift.”
“Don’t you have men yelling in your face that we were born savages and should act like savages?”
“Savages, eh? Yeah, nah, comrade, they told me we’re warriors.”
“Which means savages, Roman.” I shake my head. “Warriors are savages who know how to fight.”
“That ain’t true, ya know. It’s all labels. Don’t let that crap get into ya head. Ya free to do what ya do. I do what I do and I’m living dandy, ya see?” He pats his head with his uninjured arm. “Deep within, we’re little teddy bears. Folks ain’t fighting ‘cause they want to.”
Of everything Roman has ever been wrong about, that’s something he’s the most wrong about. Why would people fight for generations if they didn’t like it? Most of them probably slashed throats as a hobby.
There’s nothing commendable about this hellhole; about this city; about this whole country. Russia is an expanded coliseum, crammed with mass-produced war clones. We will kill and kill until there isn’t anyone left.
Another loud bang resounds over the trenches and I exchange glances with Roman, each of us silently saying, Shit, there’s the second wave of foes. Without a word, I rip another piece of cloth from Roman’s trousers and add it to the first. Blood continues to seep out, but at least it isn’t spraying anymore. He grimaces a little. That’s a bad sign. He’s never winced.
“Getting shot hurts, huh?” I snort. “That’ll teach you fighting ain’t a fucking joke.”
“Don’t worry, comrade, you’ll be my eyes on my back and I’ll be yours! We’re gonna be a-okay, and no one can tell me otherwise!” Roman keeps on babbling as if I’m the one who was losing blood, not him. “Whatcha gonna do when we see the Supreme Leader? I bet he’s gonna give us those shiny gold medals! I’d love to have one hanging on the walls of my bedroom! Oh wait, then I gotta grab me my own room first . . . Do ya know when we’re gonna be granted our accommodations, Alexei? About time we got something, ya think? We’ve been fighting for years now.”
“We have to survive first.”
“We’re gonna walk out o’ here in one piece! Just ya see! Then we gon’ take you to get that taimen fish o’ yours. Your favorite dish, ain’t it? Maybe they gon’ even erase that nasty scar on your head for free too.”
I thought I was used to Roman’s hopeless optimism. But I’ve been wrong. “Can you just shut the fuck up and listen to me? You’re only like this because this is the first proper battle you’ve ever been in! You’re the only fucking reason I’m in this trench! You’re not going anywhere!” I press his other shoulder onto the dirt wall and bare my teeth, snarling at him like a hungry wolf.
“Yer a sick bastard!” He claps his hand on my hand, giggling as if I’ve made an exemplary joke. “I ain’t a toddler inside a glass cage. I ain’t need ya to dictate my life, ya hear? If ya really care, let me go, will ya? I never told ya what to do.”
“Zip your hole! You won’t care shit about medals, and soon you won’t care shit about houses near the rivers. When you’re lying face-flat in your own pool of blood, you will want to live! You will regret every single choice you made that got you here. To hell with your idiotic ideals! You’re staying here, dickhead! You hear?” Those are the words I want to say.
But when I look into Roman’s eyes, they’re brimming with enthusiasm. Unwavering optimism. The flash of a nearby explosion bathes his visage in its terrible light. As the light surrounds him, his very essence seems to have transformed, painting him with a glow worthy of a benevolent celestial being.
I can’t say anything in return. There’s nothing I can do to change this man. Even if he’s going to drop dead in a minute, he’s still going to kick the bucket with a smile.
Over the trench and behind the defensive sandbags, Vice Commander Smolov hollers through the loudspeaker. “Those cowards are retreating! Great Russia calls you to action, comrades! Time to strike! Get outta there and push them back! Now, now, NOW!”
Roman shakes his shoulder to push me away and grabs the rifle strapped around him. His grin doesn’t leave his face the whole time. “Ya hear? Let’s go!” It baffles me how he still has the strength to get up. Either his injuries aren’t as worrying as I’ve anticipated or his rush of adrenaline has overshadowed the pain.
“Please,” I say. He can’t die. I’m only a week away from leaving behind this cursed life of secrecy, never able to be who I am, never able to live with my actual identity. I want to tell him my journey; the hunts in the woods back in Murmansk; the time I escaped death by swapping my poisoned drink with my target’s; my boat trips across the Arctic, tailing deserting Moskvich officials; infiltrating Komi Republic’s bureaucratic ladder; foiling the opposition party’s plan to tamper with the 1979 State of Sakha election. I want someone to know who I am, the things that I’ve done, and still pat me on my back and tell me what matters that it’s over and that I’m okay. I want him to be that person.
He can’t die.
Roman ignores me.
Roman springs up from the trench. That’s the moment I finally sense a threat. The sound of ammo leaving the muzzle. The smell of death. I know when a bullet is coming. I always could detect when danger was one inch too close for comfort.
“Duck! DUCK!” I scream. But it’s too late. A split second too late.
Bang. The damned bullet hits. The metallic taste of fresh blood permeates the air and clings to the tip of my tongue. It’s a taste I will never forget.