Roman is dead. And I’m alone again.
I trudge back inside the fort, staring at the State of Tatarstan flag—our flag—jerking above a watchtower, a single bullet chiseled through its corner. I bite on my fingers to stop them from shaking.
The walk from the fort entrance to the main building felt like a haze. Izhevsk Fort is anything but spacious, though not small enough that I wouldn’t recall moving from a corpse-ridden battlefield to an amputee-ridden hallway. All that’s in my mind is Roman’s truncated grunt before his body smashed against the sandbags. I can still hear the hiss as Roman slithered down the snow-lined parapet and into the trench. He’s still out there. Still dead.
The taste of his blood creeps back inside my mouth.
I kneel, scraping the ground until I gather a fistful of snow. I shove the snow into my mouth, then chomp it down my throat. Then I grab another fistful, shove it in, chomp it. Another. Then another.
I devour snow until the taste is gone.
Only then does the haze dissipate, and the entrance to the complex appears before my eyes, a legion of soldiers lying in front of it, staring at me.
Fucking dicks. Bet they’re judging me, as if they’ve never lost a friend before.
I tap on the lieutenant badge on my uniform, and they avert their eyes. I take another fistful of snow and pretend to rinse my badge with it.
Fuck, Alexei, don’t lose your cool. Not here.
A guy from my section, nicknamed Sprinter, sits among the exhausted soldiers with his back against the gray wall. His legs are splayed, his chest heaving as he sees me. I don’t know if he acknowledges my presence. Maybe he’s in a haze, too.
Next to him, a rugged-looking man slumps to the ground, his hand clutching his shoulder as he shudders. He rummages through his pockets with the other hand and pulls out a pellet of nasvai, the chewing tobacco smuggled in from Uzbekistan. He puts it into his mouth with shaky fingers. I don’t know how he can chew that shit with all those missing upper teeth, or how he can be so brazen to reveal his prized possession in front of everyone.
I don’t know why I’m so pissed. It’s none of my business, but I want to bash his head into a pile of rock so badly. The man’s got gold in his hand, and he doesn’t know how to keep it safe. He’ll be robbed of his tobacco tonight, and I’ll be laughing when he does.
Only after I slump down next to the man do I get the grasp of the severity of our current situation. A heavy snowstorm halted the battle and spared us from a decisive defeat, but this extreme cold will subside in a couple weeks. When the warmer weather kicks in, their tanks will join the ranks, and it will be over for us.
And I’ve gotten fuck all done.
Lieutenant Petrov—the second-in-command of our section—emerges from the snowy gate, dried blood splattered over his shoulders. Square jaw, sharp eyes, and protruding bones—the guy sure looks like the real deal. Here’s a little secret: he isn’t. We’ve been waiting for him and Lieutenant Commander Bragin to show up, and for a man who insists on the importance of punctuation, Bragin is taking his sweet time today.
Petrov scans the hallway. The way he manages to pick out guys from our section from among the swarm of scattered soldiers is almost impressive. The lieutenant sways his head a little as he makes eye contact with me. “Comrade Vronsky, report casualties.”
The fuck if I know? I just got back. A guy under the trench wouldn’t know jack shit compared to Lieutenant Bragin on the watchtower.
“Roman Yatsky is dead. Sprinter is here. I have no info on the others,” I answer.
“Oh.” He looks at me with pity. “Roman was a good man. I know how close you two were.”
“Yeah.” Stop talking to me, shithead. I just want to go back to my room and sleep today off.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” he says.
“Maybe a cig,” I huff.
“That can be done. Lieutenant Vronsky, please gather the others. They are either outside or are wandering about near the Eastern gate. You know, for food.”
“Yeah, okay.” It’s not as if those guys don’t know where our rally point is. They just have to fuck around.
I scour the open field between the Northern gate, where I was, and the double caponier. I only find three more soldiers from our section. As a lieutenant, I’m in a position to reprimand them, but I don’t feel like it. I tell each of them to head to the rally point, and they follow my command without another word.
After another ten minutes, I reach the Eastern gate, where captain Ushakov—the third-in-command who doesn’t actually do anything—is yelling at soldiers for not cleaning their equipment. The rest of our squad is standing among the troops, scrubbing the tips of their rifles at the speed of a turtle. If Petrov is around, they won’t even bother, but Ushakov is perpetually angry and knows how to abuse his authority.
I wait for the captain to leave and gesture for my men to return to the Northern gate. As soon as they get the memo, I’m out of there. My room is on the opposite side of the complex, and the sooner I get back, the better. Both Dzyuba and Smolov are going AWOL, so nobody is gonna make a fuss about me skipping cleaning duty. Maybe Petrov will cover for me or something.
I just don’t want to do anything. I’ve used up my willpower for today and am in dire need of a recharge.
“You need me to walk you back? I figured you might want some company,” says Petrov.
He always does that thing where he pretends he’s any closer to me than a superior to a private.
“I can manage well on my own, so no need.”
“There’s something I need you to do for me on your way back.”
“There’s a stack of our laundry in med pod number five. When you come back, fetch it for me.”
“Why is it over there?” I ask. The pod is close to where I stay, while he’s in a totally different part of the complex, so it doesn’t make much sense for him to be there.
“I was carrying it when the alarm rang, so I left the load on top of the small cabinet.”
I’ll take his word for it. Whatever he’s cooking is not my business.
“I’ll be in my room if you need anything: 303, north-western quarter,” he says with a diplomatic grin before he bids me goodbye.
Walking to the med pod takes me fifteen minutes. I feel like stepping back thirty years in time as I enter. A moldy stench, typical of rooms lacking ventilation, clings to the walls, and the top of the high cabinets opposite me are coated in an eternal layer of dust. Two orange-colored first-aid kit boxes, the words Antechka Individyadchnaya printed on them, should be placed inside the small accent cabinet to my right, along with easily accessible sutures, scalpel, and hemostats, assuming they aren’t yet stolen. I usually borrow them to make my life easier while mending my uniform, and as long as I return them before sunrise, I’m not in trouble.
This place used to be an actual single-bed infirmary room, so it makes sense to keep things as is. Though the bed’s gone, the bleary, crisscrossed bloodstain lines visible even on a red color carpet attest to the number of nearly dead people this room has served.
Petrov’s pile of laundry is placed neatly atop an accent cabinet. At first glance, whoever washed these clothes actually did a decent job. As I walk over to grab it, my eyes catch sight of something peculiar.
From inside the carton box next to the cabinet, strands of blonde fabric tumble over the edge. It looks smooth enough to be a single, uniform ribbon, but when I squint at it, I realize it’s made of thousands of fine threads. Like. . . hair.
That’s impossible. How can a person grow their hair that long under this weather?
I grab my pistol, unholster it, and aim at the box as I creep closer. There’s a person inside, hugging himself, curling up like a fetus. He seems unconscious, and doesn’t respond even when I sneak up close.
Not taking my finger off the trigger, I take a peek. Hidden beneath waves of disheveled hair strands covering his left eye is milky white skin, a tad ghastly around his plump cheeks. He’s wearing what seems to be some sort of long white robe with exquisite gray lining across the top. However, unlike a robe, this attire doesn’t cover his arms and is fixed on his body by two graceful white vine straps over his shoulders. The robe puffs out from his waist and covers all the way to the bottom of his feet, making him seem as though he’s wearing an umbrella.
Is he a civilian? A Camp A? That’s impossible. Farmers and workers have already been evacuated. Even if he’s a farmer, no farmer wear something that can trip them while working or leave them freezing to death.
The abysmal lighting in the room makes it hard to give him a good look, but at least he doesn’t seem to be carrying a weapon.
Is he a spy?
Why would a spy wear whatever that is? Why hide inside of a carton? In here, of all places? It’s not like these pods won’t be used for critical surgeries. I’m sure one or two will occupy this place in an hour.
Still, something tells me he’s not simply here to ditch cleaning duty.
Muffled footsteps ring out from the corridor. It seems two people are approaching. One of them says something along the lines of, “We have to use one of the pods.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I look back at the guy hiding in the box. The safest course of action is to turn him in, but knowing Dzyuba, I might be under some heat for just being here. He might wanna rub some dirt on me, claiming I’m a spy too, or something just as dumb.
I’ll just leave him here. Someone else will find him, and it can’t be my problem if I’m not around.
I step back. A voice inside my head rings out, “You have seven days left.”
Seven days. The words hit me like a blast from a T-72. I’m here on a mission. I’ve had no leads, and now, I suddenly find an intruder? He might have nothing to do at all with what I’m looking for, but I have to take a stab.
But how do I get back to my quarters carrying somebody wearing a fucking white robe? I’m going to stick out like a circus bear on a battlefield.
The footsteps grow louder. The guys out there are gonna turn the corner soon.
Ah, fuck it.
I pull him away from the box and throw his hands over my shoulders. He makes no attempt to resist as I carry him out of the pod and take a winding path back to my quarters.