1991, the Persian Gulf
days later, at the break of dawn and after a night of
pool, beer and good-byes to his mates, Dan was standing
in front of the tin-clad shithole that had been his
home for the last few months. Heavy bergan strapped
to his back, sports bag standing at his side. Shades
over his eyes, he was dressed in mostly civilian kit.
Khaki t-shirt, desert coloured cross-draw vest on top,
its pockets filled with the necessities of his life.
Combat trousers, webbed belt keeping them secured, and
his customary boots - British Forces desert issue, not
any longer the Lowa ones. No armour, no weapon, no nothing.
Except for the trusty assault knife he always carried
on his body.
felt naked, missed the protective combat attire, but
fuck, he was nothing but a civvie right now, being taken
to his next place of deployment by a US Air Force medical
supply patrol. He should be thankful to the Yanks that
they'd agreed to take the Merc.
his eyes run slowly across the tin huts, he stalled
at one, then at another, finally glancing at the Mess
tent. Too early for breakfast, good thing he'd been
friendly with the scran assassin and had a stack of
sandwiches in his bag. A bottle of water on his webbing,
and a two litre plastic one in the bergan. Nothing worse
than getting dehydrated in the heat.
was it, then, the Gulf was done and over with. He shrugged
to himself before picking up his bag and slinging the
PLCE webbing across one shoulder. At least webbing and
soft kit were his own. Trusty old stuff, from his army
days. Outdated and worn-out but still functional, just
like himself. Forty-one, not quite on the scrap heap
round, he forced himself to think nothing at all. Empty
mind and memories, the only way to exist. His boots
threw up small clouds of red dust as he made his way
towards the exit of the camp. Dan padded down his trouser
pocket, felt for the official papers that allowed him
into the US base and onto the patrol ride. They'd drop
off a couple of cases of antibiotics first, before delivering
him to his temporary destination.
start in old boots, and the memories forever a part
of his luggage.
* * *
of the guys in the Huey, that was chugging along the
edge of the Iraqi desert, saw the flash of the RPG launcher
that had been camouflaged amongst a low outcrop of rocks.
Neither aware of the grenade's smoke trail, racing towards
US crew and their passenger were instantly shaken when
a mighty impact hit the chopper, cracking the tail boom
of the Huey in the explosion. "Shit!" Dan
exclaimed, half-thrown off his makeshift seat of metal
drugs boxes. He stared at loadmaster and winchman opposite
to him. The jolt had been hard enough to make him bounce
on his unforgiving seat. "What the fuck?"
got no answer, the two crew members busily gesticulating
at each other, but Dan didn't need anyone to explain
to him what the hell had happened when the rotor stopped
spinning with a horrible grinding sound. He knew, with
chilling clarity, they'd been hit by an RPG. Craning
his neck, Dan could make out the pilot shouting over
the noise to his co-pilot, helped by the intercom, but
impossible to hear for Dan who was out of the loop.
No uniform, no safety, no helmet. The pilots' voices
drowned out by ear-splitting noise from the tail boom.
action broke out as the chopper kept moving forward,
then shuddered and started to spin. First slowly, then
picking up speed. Dan was holding on to the open door
and looked at the winchman, knowing they were in deep
shit, and from the Yank's facial expression, he wasn't
the only one who realised the extent of trouble. "Fuck!"
Dan muttered, gritting his teeth and cursing civvie
clothing that left him with no protection. A soft target
of the highest calibre. Both of the crew members were
strapped into seats that could absorb at least some
of the impact, but he as the third man and passenger
was utterly fucked. Sitting upright on the boxes with
no protection, the crash would most likely break his
spine. Well done, Dan, old dog, what a way to die, smashed
into pieces and crushed like eggshells - but he wasn't
pilot and co-pilot were shouting towards the back of
the Huey to get down and hold on. Dan immediately scrambled
off the boxes and threw himself spread-eagled into the
narrow space on the ground, just about fitting his legs
between the two crew members' seats, with his head too
fucking close to the metal drugs boxes. The chopper
was starting to spin so violently, he hardly managed
to get hold of his bergan and stuff it into the space
between boxes and himself, trying to keep his head from
being ripped off. That would be another damn messy way
to go and he wasn't ready for that one either. He'd
survived the goddamned Afghan mountains, he wanted at
least a fighting chance now. Trying to spread the impact
across his body, pressed flat onto the steel floor.
was sweating, heart racing. Life and death, too bloody
close to death right now, the risk embodied in the metal
of an aging chopper that wasn't even fit for combat
anymore. What a fucking pathetic way to die after all
the shit he'd been through. The spin accelerated and
Dan couldn't quite make out what the loadmaster was
shouting at him, impossible to understand over the noise
of rushing air and blood pounding in his ears. Managed
to grab hold with his left to a metal bar behind the
pilot's seat, just as the accelerator spin slammed his
legs and hip against the frame of the open door and
wrenched his wrist, sending a jolt of pain through his
entire body. Dan cursed before locking his jaws, somehow
managing to get hold of the bar with his right hand
as well, hanging on for dear life with his legs half-dangling
out of the side door. That was it. If he had used up
a few lives in Afghanistan already, this was the last
one of them all. He'd pray if he could remember how
and if he believed in anything at all, but had no thoughts
left except regret, loss, love and hate and all-over
love again and most of all the burning greed to live!
Not die in a mangled mess alongside a bunch of Yanks,
who were nothing but fucking children.
barely made out the distress signal above the deafening
racket. Frantic radio messages, relayed back to the
US Military camp, while the pilot did all he could to
bring the bird down with the least possible damage.
Repeating again and again "UH-1 going down. Going
down. UH-1 hit and going down. UH-1 going down."
Huey was doing an awkward counter rotation as it fell,
making two final turns clockwise, nose up, until its
front end was suddenly cast down violently in such an
unfortunate angle, the nose hit the ground violently.
Dan was screaming in pain when his body was torn towards
the left, his entire side crashing once more against
metal bars, wall, interior and door frame, and his left
wrist wrenched ten times harder than before. He could
hear the sickening sound of bones breaking amidst the
thunderous noise when the chopper hit heat-baked sand
almost straight-on. The ground was as hard as concrete
and the Huey had enough velocity to start flipping over
onto its back in what seemed like agonising slow motion.
Accompanied by terrifying screeching sounds of distorting
metal. At the moment of impact the main rotors snapped
off and went flying, part of the debris crashing through
the warped roof, some of it entering through the open
door. The body of the helicopter bore itself deeper
into the ground, nose first, pilot and co-pilot taking
the impact. There were screams and deafening noise,
but Dan couldn't make out anymore what was human voices
and what was the steel shrieking in agony, when the
bird veered towards the left side, destroying part of
the cockpit - front and side.
there was silence. Sudden. Deadly.
lay still. Breathing in dust and fumes, waiting for
an explosion, but nothing happened. For one long second
the world seemed to stand still, frozen after the crash,
steeped in pain. Agony from his left wrist, pain along
his entire leg and hip, his ribs, but he could breathe.
Could feel. Felt the goddamned pain and knew he was
alive. Tried to move his fingers, toes, hands, knew,
then, the left wrist was fractured. Fucking left, again,
but he should be thankful.
more than two seconds passed since the bird had crashed,
with Dan still checking out his ribs, arms, legs, when
a far worse noise started. Moans, a muffled cry from
across the seats, nonsensical stifled screams and more
groans, mixed with sounds that didn't seem to make sense.
Dan called out, "everyone OK?" Managed to
move, thank fuck, only his wrist useless, left hand
hanging at a freaky angle. Grunting against the pain
with clenched teeth, he lifted his head and started
to scramble to his feet. He wasn't the only one who
realised seconds after the crash that they had to get
out of the chopper. His shout came almost at the same
time as the voice from the cockpit. Seemed to be the
pilot, in a lot of pain. "Need a little help here,
guys. Scott got it I think."
managed to get to his knees, nursing his hand and looking
around. Fuck. Carnage. Saw the loadmaster hanging lifeless
on his seat which was half-torn off the chopper wall,
and the winchman
shit. Dan's eyes widened. "Holy
fuck." Muttered when he stared straight into panicked
wide eyes of the young guy, who had been nailed to the
Huey by a broken piece of rotor stuck through the chest,
near to his shoulder. Dan raised his good hand and nodded
to him. "Hang on, don't move." As if. Fuck
his head before managing to shuffle around, still on
his knees and wanting to scream at the agony all along
his side, but forced his old and battered body to comply.
Nothing except for the wrist was broken. Stop whinging,
Mad Dog, and shut the fuck up.
me a sec." Dan called out to the pilot. "One
man unconscious back here, the other injured. I'm alright."
Peered over the front seats. "You alright, Jackson?"
Remembered the pilot's name tag. He could see the co-pilot's
helmet before he managed to get up. The sight of the
unnatural angle of the guy's head told Dan all he needed
to know. Jackson had been right, his co-pilot was dead.
quite alright." Jackson answered, voice strained.
"Got to get the comm link up, the thing's fucked."
it." Dan answered, stood at last, swayed, got himself
under control and used his right hand to check as quick
as he could over the co-pilot. "Afraid you're right."
Glanced at the name tag, "Campbell's dead."
Turned his head to check on the two guys in the back.
"The kid's not looking good. What about you?"
He could see the blood in the pilot's lap, creeping
from the thigh up the fabric of the flight overalls.
leg." Jackson spoke through gritted teeth, nevertheless
working on the comm. "Broken." Messy. Dirty.
"Hurts like fuck, but I'm alive." A miracle
he wasn't unconscious. "Deal with the others, I'll
be alright." The pilot craned his head and caught
Dan's eyes, who nodded.
arsehole fired the RPG, they'll have seen us going down
and they'll be coming for us." Dan felt an adrenaline
rush at his own words. They had to get out and away
or they'd be more fucked than they already were. "Hurry
up with that comm, mate."
nodded, reached to his side and Dan could see sweat
patches forming on the uniform. That guy was tough.
Full marks for the Yank.
turned back, no more than a couple of minutes had passed,
when he saw movement from the loadmaster. At least that
one wasn't dead, even though bleeding from the neck.
He'd deal with him later, since it was the young bumfuck
who gave the greatest reason to worry. "Hang on
in there, kid." Dan moved closer, inspected the
entry point of the razor sharp edge of the rotor blade
shrapnel. "I have to strap up my wrist first, alright?"
Dan kept the kid's attention and the big glassy eyes
focussed on him. He could see the pain written all across
the pale and sweating face, even though he was probably
in too much shock still to be aware of the full extent
of pain. Pain, and fear. Shit, this Yank really was
nothing but a kid, even Matt was a grown up compared
to the guy. Eighteen, he had overheard Johnson chatting
with the loadmaster earlier, and his first deployment.
ripped the first aid box from the wall. Aware of the
irony that he had been sitting on boxes with medical
supplies, which were bloody useless for them. Managed
to open the box with right hand and teeth, fished out
the sturdiest bandage he could find and cursed under
his breath while trying to open the cellophane. He could
feel the kid's eyes on him all the time and looked up,
nodding to him. "Just a sec, OK? What's your name?
Can't see your nametag from here. I'm Dan, but they
call me Mad Dog." Kept the kid's focus, who was
starting to fade out of consciousness. Shit, that wouldn't
do, remembered that much from his Battlefield First
Aid training, a lifetime ago.
had been focussing on the bandage that was finally open,
surprised at the voice. Strained but audible Good, perhaps
that little bumfuck would turn out to be a fighter.
He was digging his teeth into one end of the bandage,
when he heard the voice again.
" the kid trailed off, and Dan
could see how his fist clenched surreptitiously while
the face beneath the helmet was drenched in sweat, pale
with diluted eyes.
like fuck, aye?"
kid tried to nod, obviously suppressing a whimper, which
caused Dan to forget about his wrist for a moment.
Johnson silently nodded and Dan kept the bandage between
his teeth while reaching for the syrette around the
soldier's neck. Yanking it off, he slammed it into Chris'
thigh, who barely twitched.
the bandage from his teeth, Dan murmured, "You'll
feel better in a sec. Trust me, kid." As he watched
Johnson's baby-blue eyes loose focus almost with immediate
effect. Good. He wouldn't scream too much.
suddenly heard another voice, sounding disoriented.
looked up, saw the loadmaster wiping blood off his neck
then testing limb after limb. Dan grinned, relieved.
"Aye, need to strap up before I'm useful. Need
to hurry up. You alright? Any fractures?"
loadmaster's eyes were dark in the shadow of his helmet,
and so were his features, smeared with blood. Dan could
just about make out the name tag. Martinez. That would
explain the eyes.
shook his head, groaned, then stilled the movement and
held his head in his hands for a moment. "No, seems
I was lucky." He got off the seat, stepped over
to Dan and took the bandage and a flexi-tube, strapping
both as tightly as possible around the fractured wrist
without cutting the blood off. Dan was gritting his
teeth at the pain, hitting his thigh with the good fist
once or twice, but the Yank was fast and the wrist secured
as best as possible in the shortest time.
I got concussion." Martinez finished his task.
nodded, "What the fuck happened here and how did
we get into this shit?"
Jackson shouted from the front, while working frantically
despite his injury. "Martinez, it got Campbell."
loadmaster frowned. "Fuck." Muttered, started
to take full notice of his surroundings and the magnitude
of what had happened. Intercepted by Dan who had fished
a sterile bandage out of the box, handing it over.
your neck taped up. I deal with Johnson. Will need your
help in a minute." Martinez nodded, slowly, began
to do as told, and Dan wondered if he'd just found the
secret to getting out of the mess they were in. Get
them to listen to what he told them to do. Brit or not.
Non military or not. The situation was only going to
get worse and rapidly so, and he was the most seasoned
soldier of the lot. Ex SAS. Twenty years behind enemy
lines. It was up to him. How much time before whoever
shot them down was going to find them? The faster they
got out of there the better their chances.
you move, kid?" Dan asked Chris, but the Yank was
barely conscious, just as expected. Knocked out by the
morphine. "OK, seems that dammed rotor went right
through you and into the chopper. We have to get out
of here ASAP, you understand? We have to move you. Afraid
you'll have to grit your teeth."
tongue darted out, moistening his lips, but he clearly
wasn't with it. Leaving Dan to hope that the guy felt
nothing at all.
glanced at Martinez, "You into First Aid?"
The loadmaster tried to shake his head and Dan cursed
when he was told that Campbell had been the best trained
medic on that flight. Scott Campbell, still strapped
into his seat, dead with a broken neck and legs that
had been smashed by the impact.
Chris." Dan chose the first name, never got that
business of addressing a comrade with their surname.
Fuck their custom, he didn't care, he was running this
show in his own way. British, crazy, unorthodox, and
with the ultimate chance of survival. "Listen,
kid, we have to leave her little present in your chest
for now, until they can get a medevac here and fly you
back into camp."
luck with the comm?" Dan didn't receive an affirmative,
and waved the loadmaster closer.
your help here." Glancing at Martinez, "what's
your first name?" The guy looked surprised but
nodded. "Alright, Gary, my wrist's fucked, I need
you to take over most of the work. I steady this end
of the rotor blade and you pull Chris off." Martinez
was getting into position. Clearly, getting told what
to do was doing the trick. Jackson was letting out a
muffled cry of pain from the front, but Dan couldn't
be bothered with another casualty right now. Shit, he
wasn't even a medic, he was bumbling along on half remembered
facts, years of experience in the field and whatever
else he had picked up along the way. "God help
us." Murmured, too quiet to be overhead, and he
wasn't even a believer.
at Martinez, Dan got into position, steadying the sharp
metal with his right hand, planting himself on the ground,
legs braced. Ignoring the pain along his battered left
side. "On three." Heard Johnson whimper when
Martinez grabbed hold of him, and saw him bite down
hard to stop another cry escaping, despite the morphine.
"One, two," Dan took a deep breath, "three!"
pulled hard, Johnson screamed in agony, out of his head,
and then he fell silent the moment the rotor was pulled
free. The kid's unconscious torso fell forward, just
about caught by Dan who stumbled backwards, but kept
his balance. "Shit!" Martinez exclaimed, caught
hold of Johnson, leaned him back against the wall.
fuck." Dan wiped his bloodied hand on his trousers,
saw the extend of the wound at the back. "We have
to get a medevac." Didn't think the kid had a chance
if he wasn't treated within a few hours. "Get him
bandaged up, we need to carry him. See what you can
find to pad the damned bits that are sticking out."
Martinez nodded, started without another delay before
Johnson regained consciousness. Morphine or not, he'd
be in a shitload of pain far too soon.
was calling from the front. "Got it! Probably only
a few minutes. The power is fucked." The comm seemed
to come to life with a faint sound. "I'll give
them our position."
suddenly woke up, hit by a realisation much worse than
the fucking grenade itself. They had crashed about ten
minutes ago. Maybe fifteen. Difficult to keep track
in a fucked-up situation like that.
He turned, ducked his head and crouched towards the
cockpit, avoiding a twisted metal beam. "You can't
was looking at him as if he had lost his mind, but Dan
paid no heed. He knew what they had to do.
the fuck blew us out of the sky isn't regular Iraqi
Army. Those guys are done and dusted, they are history.
Whoever did that is a renegade bastard who hasn't cottoned
on that they are supposed to have surrendered. And those
bastards are itching to find the chopper and butcher
whoever is still alive. Make an example and all that
didn't seem convinced yet, shook his head. "We
need a medevac, like, now. My leg's fucked, Johnson
sounded as if we were doing the butchering all on our
own, and we have to get out of here."
Dan nodded, "we do. But I know a way how, without
giving out the exact position over the comm link. It's
unsecured, isn't it?" Jackson nodded, his face
a sweaty mask of pain. "Thought so." Dan's
eyes narrow. "They'll be listening in, I bet my
eight inches of Prime Scots Beef on that. We need to
get away from the wreck within the next ten minutes
and we need to keep moving. We can make it harder for
those bastards to find us."
slowly handed the microphone over when Dan held out
his good hand. "Trust me. I'll get us out."
He leaned against the shoulder of the co-pilot's corpse
to move it out of the way and reached for the mic, fingers
of his good hand firmly around it. "I'm not Mad
Dog for nothing."
had to take charge, and he was going to do just that.
a crazy Russian and years of fucked-up love had to be
good for something.
morning, back in camp, Vadim had got up and to work
like every other day.
that day, Dan was gone. People looked at him, as if
they expected him to go berserk. Jean seemed on the
verge of leaving him behind that day on duty, then seemed
to decide that work was a good distraction. Vadim didn't
give a fuck. Life without Dan continued, like it had
every time Dan vanished into the mountains. It wasn't
different. Some part of him still waited for the other's
return. And some part couldn't bear the thought.
should be grateful he was still intact, that he was
free, that he could repay his debts. He wasn't pondering
death that day. He did the job, knowing he could go
on like that.
returned to camp, and Vadim could feel the change in
the air. He stood near the jeep, drinking water, when
one of the guys came running for Jean, clamouring about
a shot down helicopter.
covered in red dust, gave a curse, then glanced quickly
at Vadim, alarm in his eyes, and Vadim knew it was Dan's
helicopter. Some knowledge was visceral and needed no
confirmation. From the excited noises the man was making,
the Americans had lost a transport Huey, and it had
crashed somewhere, with its Yank crew and a passenger.
They assumed insurgents. Rogue units. The rumour mill
was spinning. Presidential Guard, Muslim fanatics. Uncanny,
uncanny resemblance. They knew nothing yet.
watched and listened, the men were talking like he wasn't
there, the news sensational enough to keep everybody
preoccupied. They were talking about chances for casualties,
how big the crew was, and what was the best way to bring
a Huey down. How to crash it without killing everybody
inside. Dan dead? Impossible. He'd survived a car bombing.
yet. After all the effort to die by his hand, wouldn't
it be ironic if Dan died now? Some kind of "fuck
you", but then, Dan didn't want to die. He survived,
because he could. Vadim just didn't believe it, even
though he had seen men die, too many to disbelieve in
death. But if he had, what had his last thought been?
His last word? Anything, anything at all. Vadim felt
his stomach churn and reached for a bottle of water
that one of the guys offered him. Alive. Dying?
knew one thing: They'd go and try recover the bodies
and possibly blow up the wreck. And they had to act
swiftly. Fucking Americans. They'd do the job, whatever
he did. He wanted to set out by himself, but he didn't
even know in which direction to march, and nobody in
this camp seemed to know that, either. Jean headed towards
the command tent. That was the place where the news
would be coming in, if anybody bothered to tell them.
was unlikely, damned unlikely the Yanks would ask them
to do anything in the matter, or even share the information.
Vadim couldn't decide to hand his rifle in, didn't feel
hungry. Just got the water down for the moment, standing
there, staring at the tent. Fuck it. If the call came,
he'd be ready.
was starting to make preparations. Calmed his mind.
Dan. Dead. He'd have to see the charred remains to believe
it, truly believe it. And unless the Yanks actively
kept him from it, he'd get proof. Invited or not. He
had nothing to lose, and he didn't give a fuck about
radio link was up, and Dan knew he only had a few minutes.
Crucial moments that would decide about life and death.
With one eye watching Martinez work on delivering first
aid to the still unconscious kid, the other noticing
how Jackson had ripped open a first aid box and was
trying to stem the blood of his injury.
calling HQ." Dan listened intently to the faint
signal, focussing on his words, repeating them again
and again until he finally got a reply. Seemed they'd
been waiting for news, probably frantically, no surprise
there. His momentary smirk was grim.
took only seconds before Dan realised that explaining
to the stupid Yank operator who he was - without using
his name - seemed to be impossible. he was forced to
hand the mic back to Jackson, hoping that voice recognition
would do the trick.
Dan muttered, when the damned pilot was careless enough
to identify himself, mentioning Campbell as KIA. He
could only hope whoever had shot them down and was no
doubt listening in on the transmission, hadn't been
quick enough to catch up on the information. "Get
on with it." Dan frowned, gesticulating to Martinez
to get the pilot out of his seat and see to his injuries,
before taking hold of the comm once more.
Brit here." Avoiding names, numbers, dates, times,
places, truths, any fucking thing. "You understand?
Shot down, as Jackson said. Enemy territory." No
secrets, there. "No more information. Unsecured
me the Russian cunt."
reaction on the other end was nothing but sheer confusion.
"Did you copy?" Dan's voice grew more tense.
"I will not speak to anyone but the Russian madman.
British camp. Do you copy?" Voice getting louder.
"The Russian. He will understand." Dan was
met with ignorance or unwillingness, he didn't know
nor cared. "For fuck's sake, we have a few minutes
on battery power and a bunch of arseholes out to finish
us off," not a secret anywhere, "do what I
ask you to."
they still wouldn't comply, until he shouted at last:
"You stupid fucking piece of a fucking thick Yank
plank! Do you want to get us all killed? Your whole
precious crew? Get the fucking Russian merc on the comm!
seemed to do the trick. At last. They were running out
of precious time with every second.
in the British camp somebody hammered both hands against
the tin shack. Vadim closed the bergan, stood, crossed
the distance, opened the door abruptly.
You? Merc?" asked the soldier, and Vadim noticed
what was odd about him. He was young and wore British
camo, like they actually did. Not a merc, this one.
The guy stared up into his face, like confronted with
some fairy tale monster then gulped air. "You.
They want you over at the other camp. Urgent. Uhm, Sir."
waved the rank off and ran after the kid, bergan already
packed and by his side. Jean was in the damned jeep,
too. Seemed they had rounded up everything that fitted
the 'Russian' and 'merc' bill. Vadim didn't meet the
legionnaire's eyes, but saw that the other was worried.
If he hadn't been so worried himself, he'd be fucking
kid drove them over into the Brit camp proper - just
a few hundred yards, then ran them towards the HQ tent.
A bunch of officers and NCOs stood around a comm unit.
Vadim was greeted with nods, and they indicated the
radio as if he knew what to do with it. Dan? His pulse
went from around normal fifty beats to twohundred. He
leaned down, took the piece. "Copy. I'm listening."
fuck, at last." Dan's voice was audible despite
the interference in the unstable signal.
Heart went from twohundred to nil. Then started beating
again, steady and strong and fast, like at the beginning
of sex. Alive.
switched to Russian within the next heartbeat. "No
names. No details." Knew there were possibly two
men in the British camp who'd understand, but probably
none amongst the Yanks. But he counted only on one.
When the shit hit the fan there was only one left. Despite
everything. Despite pain, hatred and loss. How bloody
ironic. "The fucking arsewipes shot us down. RPG.
One KIA." Jackson had already let that slip, but
he'd not be making anymore mistakes.
strained to hear more, breaths, as if he could deduct
more from any sensory input. Moans, pain. Dan didn't
sound wounded much, but that might just be the adrenaline.
need you to transcribe our position."
Vadim nodded towards a pad at the end of the table,
and Jean pushed it over. Bastard spoke Russian, too.
stuck to Russian, eyes half-closed, concentrating on
every word while delving into memories. All those memories
that he had refused to remember, now their only chance
to stay alive. "Need medevac, urgently. Status
of crew, one, young, probably like India."
Dan in the white bed, the white room, yellow and thin.
He put the pen to paper, wrote: 'Crew #1: young, fucked.
older, functional but bound to deteriorate, suffered
what you had in 1983, Autumn, when we couldn't fuck
in Kabul, due to your state." Dan didn't give a
shit right now who could understand what he was saying.
He had been wounded in '83? Couldn't fuck. Ah. His head,
the nausea, no way he could bear any strain, any shifting
of his axis, anything with his neck. Whiplash and concussion.
Vadim wrote: 'Crew #2, older, functional at present,
due to concussion and/or whiplash, getting worse.'
glanced up, saw Jean look at him with a funny expression.
Yes, we used to fuck, and yes, I used to get injured,
you bastard, thought Vadim, and forced the jealousy
down. Tapped the pen against the pad, waiting for more.
like 1985, when I almost ...," Dan was frantically
trying to think of how to explain something that had
been avoided, "before the R&R before
stalled, barged on with the next breath, "before
you fucked me in Kabul and I left the bergan, but pilot's
is open." Dan didn't feel Martinez' eyes on him,
nor heard Jackson's moans, as the loadmaster helped
the pilot out of the cockpit.
you fucked me in Kabul. Damned, six years already.
He remembered the taste of the dust, the golden light,
the way Dan had surrendered long enough. He cleared
his throat, unsure what the other meant. "Can you
frowned, rubbing his eyes with his arm, "I'd just
," suddenly remembered, "like
1984 and a pile of Mujas. Not the head. Combine those
tried to make sense, '84 and almost in '85. Bullet.
Wound, not the head, leg. Leg! That was it. "Copy."
Then wrote: 'Pilot: Fucked bones, open wound, probably
leg or near the knee.'
just one word into the mic. "You?"
OK. Like you before the Olympics, your dislike of horses,
but only left." Dan didn't mention the badly bruised
left side, ignored the agony. He'd live. If they just
got out of there.
grinned at that one, if Dan said he was okay, he believed
him. Made operational sense. Relief. Fucking relief.
'Dan: okay, left wrist broken. Functional.' He tore
the sheet off and let one of the officers have it.
you copy?" Dan was praying that Vadim would understand
his codes. Years of history, lost in the Afghan mountains.
Would memories be enough to save them?
copy. Copy, tiger." Vadim couldn't, wouldn't speak
the name, reached for the fairy tale, hoped it would
communicate what he couldn't. About being wild and free,
and fuck it, about being equal, and about courage and
commitment. All those things in that story. All the
things that paled in the light of the Iraqi desert.
right hand clutched the mic tightly. Tiger. Fuck, tiger.
A trip to Hungary, sadness and pain and emotional blackmail.
A woman. A fuck. And a piece of paper. But in the end
it had been worth it. For love. Where the fuck had it
visibly, Dan had veered off no more than a heartbeat.
Couldn't afford those thoughts. "Copy, Lion."
For that was what you were.
smiled. He'd used worse call signs. Nobody knew, nobody
guessed. Part of the culture, vehicles and weapons called
evocative names, units, operators.
Dan covered the mic, turned his head towards Martinez
and Jackson. "Map. I need a map of this shithole."
Fuck, how could he have forgotten before making the
radio call. Martinez understood, the pilot pointed with
his chin towards the cockpit while holding his thigh
which looked like a bloodied mess despite the bandages,
and the loadmaster went to get the map. Dan noticed
the way he was avoiding moving his head. Shit, the guy
would have to carry one of the injured men, Dan could
only hope he'd stay focussed enough until they could
heard the orders in the background, Jean already placed
a map near the pad, bastard was useful and helpful,
and why? Don't think about it. Let's get Dan out of
there. He nodded his thanks.
moved back to talk into the mic while waiting for the
map, having a fair idea of the area even without it.
"Lion, you remember the cave, 1980, where I cut
your back. We are in the same position from the camp
as we were from Kabul."
Vadim traced a line from the camp position to the North
East. Saw dried out wadis there, oil fields, whatever.
The wadis would give cover and protection, at least
that much. If the chopper had gone down anywhere near
idea how far, Tiger? They should be able to locate the
wreck, what direction are you heading off in?"
Dan took the offered map, did a quick estimation. He
queried Jackson, who had read the controls on their
way down. The line was silent for a moment while Dan
made his calculations.
Vadim heard officers say "medevac", and "RPGs",
and "insurgents". One even said "Delta
operators." Heard people talk about the homing
beacon on the wreck, and the pilots apparently had some
as well. They were already putting together a rescue.
voice was heard again. "Lion, the estimated distance
from the camp and Kabul is the first compass direction
towards the cave in 1984 where you
time he stalled for longer. Two heartbeats, then a clearing
of his throat, "where you fist-fucked me."
Shit, he had no fucking idea who had understood that
one apart from Vadim and Jean.
burst into laughter and turned away, and Vadim felt
his ears go red. Yes, that was his biggest problem,
his ears and embarrassment with Dan out there in the
desert with a fucked wrist. He shot a glance at Jean's
back that just barely failed to kill him. Wanker. He
noted down 'North'.
second direction is from the first direction the same
distance as from the cave in winter 1982 close to the
Soviet garrison, where we jerked off in the snow."
So much fucking history, Dan figured they could navigate
whole armies across the world, using their intertwined
past. "Aye, from the '82 cave to the one in 1986
where we first kissed and
" another heartbeat
of stalling, this was all so bloody personal, "where
I fucked you slow-tender for the first time." Dan
surprised himself at the strange sensation of discomfort
- that even in this life and death situation he didn't
want others to know.
Very short distance. In the freezing cold, hunger, solitude,
and burning need. And then the other place, Dan fucking
him. Mind-blowing. Dan not pounding into his body, but
taking him apart, slowly, with all the time in the world.
So desperate on a different level, emotionally instead
of physically. Vadim wrote distance and direction down
on the map, circled a likely area. He wasn't able to
paused a moment, saw Martinez wipe his brow beneath
the helmet before bending down slowly to work on a makeshift
splinter bandage for Jackson's leg. Dan saw Chris across
his vision still passed out with morphine and pain.
"Got an idea, lion, you remember the mosaic in
the tea house in Kabul?"
do." I remember so much fucking more. Vadim glanced
at the officers, and Jean turned around again, with
a huge grin on his face that made him look like a madman.
I want you back, Dan. I want you back for the memories.
I want you back because every yard of distance right
now hurts like fuck. "I remember everything."
Dan looked down, trying to ignore the other survivors,
to picture the teahouse. "The place where you usually
sat, with the mosaics behind you. Blue and green and
red and yellow. We are heading towards the blue and
the green, one panel ten miles. If anything goes wrong,
the red ones after that." On the map, that should
take them towards the West and towards the wadi. Only
a couple of miles before they were able to hide. Only.
Two miles. Only. With one man dying and another shot
concentrated on the image in his mind. Two sets of mosaic
panels, one blue and green, towards the right, red and
yellow, the second set after the first, ending in a
wall that was to the right of the green leafed entrance.
Back in that tea house, when life had been simple. Just
about seduction, fucking and getting fucked, danger,
unknown territory, in the middle of enemy terrain. Vadim
drew an arrow across the map and wrote down: '2 miles
I expect action ASAP, like you did, from a pile of Muja
corpses, but expect goatfuckers and crows."
remained silent. Medevac, very urgent, helplessness,
more towelheads, more grenades. Dan smelling of sour
blood in the heat. Dan staring wild-eyed at him. The
fear that that leg wound was infected, and Dan would
rot away under his hands. The fear. The madness. The
fucked-up love. The only way to drag Dan back to the
Muezzin will be disabled after this transmission. Do
you copy?" Dan wiped sweat off his face with the
back of his right hand.
The guy who called Muslims to prayer. Vadim frowned.
Calling Muslims. Homing device. Too dangerous; of course.
They might have a way to hone in on them. He wrote:
'Will disable beacon'. "Copy, Tiger."
heard something with one ear, plans, the Yanks were
starting to put together a medevac. He wanted to be
in there, wanted nothing more than be there and help,
but he understood the copter might not have enough space
for a fucked crew and doctors and guys to secure the
parameter. "Get your ass to the rendezvous point,
Tiger." Don't die on me. Good luck. I want you.
I love you.
do, Lion." Dan felt the overwhelming urge to continue
talking. Just not stopping this transmission To stay
and talk, keep the line open, hold onto the voice. The
memories, the lost life, this something-anything that
was still burning brightly inside him. Despite the hatred,
the pain, and the fucking shit the Russian cunt had
pulled on his friends.
to take the cubs across the mosaic." Dan paused,
looking from the pale bumfuck with his closed eyes,
a the chest bandaged up like a mummy, and a piece of
steel protruding out, over to Martinez who wasn't quite
steady on his feet, and finally towards the pilot, with
his face distorted in pain, holding his leg while valiantly
struggling to stand. "Further communication impossible.
No personal radios."
felt his hand clench around the pen, chest tight. Meant
the radio was in the copter. The piece of scrap metal.
anything goes wrong ..." Dan's Russian was slipping,
the accent getting thicker. "Time's running out."
He could survive on his own, probably, but none of the
others would make it. Possibly Martinez, but the kid
and the pilot were doomed without him.
the hotel, our last night, and the KGB set onto me."
Dan saw Jackson talk to the loadmaster and pointing
at the co-pilot's corpse. "Lion, I might not be
that lucky this time." He had no idea if Vadim
even understood. Realisation hit him square in the chest
that they'd never talked about what had happened. There
had only been one fairy tale and a price for its delivery.
Dan swore under his breath.
I die. What if I die. Vadim closed his eyes, wanted
to keep that voice, wanted to keep Dan breathing by
willpower alone. "Luck's got nothing to do with
it", he said, smiling. Hoped to transfer what he
could. Optimism. Soothing. Reassurance.
in the chopper, Dan nodded. "The tiger might need
the lion to get him out." Will you? Would you?
Risk your life for mine? For you. For me. For what we've
once been and not the shit thereafter. "Do you
looked at the officers, thought, whatever they are planning,
whatever they are doing, I'll get him out. "Lion
has his claws already sharpened and is ready to go."
Truth. He was burning, itching to go. "He doesn't
take a no for an answer. No disqualification for cheating
this time." Nothing, nobody, will stop me from
getting the price, the medal.
let's make the Olympics." Dan looked at the mic
in his hand, smiled briefly, nodded to the ghost voice.
"Over and out."
put the radio down, took a deep breath and concentrated
on ignoring the pain from his wrist and the bruises.
"Right." Dan stood up from his crouch and
glanced around. "Time to get going." Awkwardly
folding the map one-handed. "Gary, will you be
able to carry Ken?" He'd be buggered if he used
their last names to their faces. Martinez nodded. Good
man, Dan could see he was struggling with the concussion
and sweating profusely, but he'd be fighting to the
bared his teeth in a feral grin. "Disable the beacon
so that the arsewipes have a harder time finding the
chopper." Jackson would know how to, and Martinez
could do the swift task. Brute force usually worked
wonders. "Gary, take Campbell's dog tag."
One for the dead, another one for the living. Proof
of the life that was lost on duty. "I'll check
the supplies and will carry Chris. They are sending
a Medevac, but we have to get away from the chopper
ASAP or we'll be sitting ducks."
knelt down with a groan, rifling through his bergan
and bag. Difficult with one hand, but he managed to
throw out what wasn't necessary, just left wallet, ID
and his trusty knife. He filled the bergan back up with
the two litre water bottle, the extra bag of sandwiches
from his cook mate, a double pack of biscuits and chocolate
in a tin, and every bit of useful medical supplies he
could find. That, and enough fags to last him a week.
Not that they'd survive that long in the desert while
on the run. As an afterthought, he cushioned the contents
with his parka, believing in being always prepared.
your supplies?" Dan heard Martinez shouting from
the top of the crashed wreck, where he had disabled
the beacon. "Yeah, got water." Jackson's voice
came from outside, where he sat, gathering his strength
and checking his pistol.
take Campbell's pistol." Dan called to the others,
then slung the bergan onto his back. He groaned at the
movement, but ignored the pain and secured the straps
instead. It was light now, contained water, food, drugs,
bandages and a blanket from the supply boxes, that he'd
stuffed on top as an afterthought. The backpack would
make good cushioning for the kid's injured body. Searching
the co-pilot's corpse, Dan took a moment to look at
the dead man's face. "Rest well." Murmured,
he'd seen many dead and dying, enough of them by his
own hand. Life and death, it had rarely been personal.
This, now, was somehow different, and perhaps he could
make good what he'd once failed in. Years ago, in another
country and another life. Another young man, another
kid soldier. This time it was a Yank, not a German.
got the tag?" Dan shouted, received no answer.
Pocketed the pistol and saw the two pieces of metal
around Campbell's neck. Hadn't been taken, then, best
he'd do it. Dan took one of the tags, let the other
nestle back beneath the uniform before patting the dead
man's shoulder. "See you in hell, mate. They say
it's a fun place."
turned, looked towards the kid who was stirring, still
drugged. "I'll take Chris' rifle. Gary, you geared
up?" Martinez called out to him that he was alright
and ready to get going. Dan knew it would be hard for
the concussed soldier, just as it would be fucking hard
for him to carry the weight of another man, but tough
shit, they'd have to do it.
let's get going." Dan bent down inside the wreck,
moved his arms under and around the kid while trying
not to aggravate the wrist, and lifted the body with
a grunt. Fuck, that hurt, and every year of his forty-two
was protesting in agony, but he'd be buggered if that
fucked-up body of his wasn't going to comply. He managed
to get the kid across his back in a fireman's lift and
on top the cushioned bergan, making sure he didn't drive
the rotor blade any deeper. Shifting carefully, he rested
the other's weight on the injured and useless lung.
Dan staggered under the weight but found his balance,
slinging the rifle across his shoulder. Stumbling when
he made his way out of the wreck, he saw that Martinez
had done the same with the injured pilot and his own
rifle. Dan bared his teeth, grinning fiercely at the
twenty-something guy. "Let's see who's faster,
aye? You or I, son." Keeping the spirits up as
they started trudging towards the wadi.
put the mic down.
Americans are already putting together the medevac",
said one of the officers. "They'll be home in a
looked at Jean, who met his gaze. Stupid laughter, yes,
no, whatever, they both wanted to get Dan out of there.
"I request to join the medevac team." Because,
if you say no, I'll steal a jeep and go off on my own.
"They need supplies, and most of the team are fucked
one way or the other. I've found downed pilots before.
I can operate in the territory."
officers talked to the Americans about it, but, yes,
they sent their own medevac, and didn't plan to take
a merc onboard, thankyouverymuch. Vadim was sent out
of the tent, where they kept talking, the regular British
army guys and the CO in charge of the mercs.
growled with frustration, worked on stupid plans, most
of them had to do with doing things at gunpoint. Listening
to the muttering and planning inside, they just didn't
really get stuff done, too many if's and when's. He
looked at Jean as the legionnaire lit a cigarette. He
hadn't been aware Jean smoked.
a bit of history, you two, eh?"
grunted a yes.
still love that man", said Jean. "Rescuing
him could be a way to get him back."
one smart mother", said Vadim, anger rising in
his throat. He wanted to go out and fight off anybody
even thinking of firing a shot at Dan.
have a talk with the CO. He's a little sweet on me.
I'll present him the facts. A two-man-team, loaded with
supplies, two guys that have experience, and of course
it's nothing personal for you. You just happen to have
done this kind of thing before."
at. All." Jean took another deep pull. "I'd
be teamleader. Nothing personal for me, either."
go have a chat. You head into my room and pack my kit."
Jean seemed to wait for Vadim moving, but Vadim only
stared at him. "Move it. We talk later."
muttered a curse, then headed off to pack Jean's kit,
drink more water, have a quick bite, rearing, eager,
absolutely stircrazy to move.
in the desert, two men were struggling with every step.
Heavy loads across their backs, one of them wearing
US camo and armoured vest, the helmet giving some shelter
against the sun, as he staggered along with slight imbalances.
The other man had a rag wrapped around his head, walking
out of balance, favouring the right side. The heat was
merciless, easily a killer to the inexperienced, but
they had almost reached the relative shelter of the
dried out river bed. It had taken them far too long
for those two miles, but each of them was carrying a
wounded comrade and they were injured themselves. Even
to Dan, the Yank kid was a comrade in arms. They'd got
into this shit together, and he'd get them out of there.
Brits. Yanks. Forces. Mercs. Whatever.
stopped, planted his feet apart, bracing himself to
blink into the sky through his shades. The sound of
a chopper, no mistaking, and he started to grin as Jackson
let out a "Hooray!" from Martinez' back.
all be a bad dream in a few minutes." The pilot
grinned despite the pain, patting his loadmaster's flank.
right." Martinez answered, glancing at the kid.
"Johnson's pretty bad, hasn't properly woken yet,
and I feel like shit myself. Gonna upchuck in a mo,
no offence, Jackson."
chuckled silently, then turned and walked on. Good,
as long as those guys were bantering, their spirits
were up. He'd never understood the Yanks, couldn't get
into the American military spirit of throwing shitloads
of ammo and weapons at the enemy - and coalition alike
all too often - with a 'bigger is better' attitude.
Yet while he looked at them patronisingly, like most
of the British Forces, he figured that in return they
regarded the Brits as a Force held together with shoestring
and spit. Neither was all too wrong, Dan mused while
getting his body back into gear, and the thought made
him grin despite the situation, and those chaps, here,
seemed alright. "Hey, keep going," he called
to Martinez, we've almost reached the wadi. We can rest
there until they find us."
could see from the corner of his eyes that the loadmaster
started to trudge on, and only a few minutes later they
had reached the relative shelter of the wadi, climbing
down into the river bed. The sound of the chopper was
getting closer and Dan was surprised at the sense of
relief, seemed he'd turned into a wuss in his old age.
"Let's wait for them" He bent down, gritting
his teeth, to carefully let the kid onto the ground,
who was stirring and moaning, eyes half-open, lying
on one side.
did the same with Jackson, watching the chopper, a dark
speck on the horizon that kept coming closer. Gary was
waving, eager to let the rescue crew know their position,
and Dan let him. Seemed whoever the fuck had shot them
down was now well out of the game. Probably. Or Possibly.
Or perhaps he was simply too much of a cynic after all
those years behind the lines, to ever trust peace and
I can't wait." Martinez took his bottle of water,
held some out to Jackson who shook his head, and gulped
down a couple of swallows. Dan didn't answer, searched
one-handed for the binoculars on his PLCE while his
wrist was throbbing, and watched the chopper. Good,
they were coming straight towards them. Vadim had understood
his cryptic clues, not that he'd ever thought anything
else. Dan was turning his head towards the kid, meaning
to feed him water when he suddenly saw a smoke trail.
"Fuck!" He shouted, caught the others' attention,
all of them staring at the disaster before their eyes.
RPG, grenade flying right towards the medevac, and then
the worst of it all, the impact. "Shit, fuck them.
Bastards! Fucking shit!" Martinez was going wild,
saw the tail boom of the chopper hit, but not as badly
as their own one. The Blackhawk was veering from left
to right, almost losing balance, a stream of thick black
smoke coming from its rear. Then it caught itself, straightening
up, to go on in a straight line for a second, before
like that. Medevac hit. Chopper turning back to camp.
Dan muttered, putting the binoculars down. "We're
on our own now." He turned his head to look at
the others. "And now they know where we are."
The medevac had shown the bastards the way.
in the British camp, Jean returned eventually, with
a Landrover, and beckoned Vadim closer. "They've
located the wreck and are pretty sure they located the
crew, but the area is swarming with insurgents, and
they don't want to lose another copter. That one got
damaged in the process, made it back on half a leg.
Apparently, the Yanks are now sitting on their hands
waiting for Delta."
They have Delta in that camp?"
They are actually in a different camp and will get flown
in. They expect them here and ready in several hours."
that! I'm moving out."
I got clearance for you and me and this Landrover and
try and locate them on the ground. Let's pick up the
rest of the kit from the QM."
Tomorrow. Fuck that. Vadim was worried, restless, itching,
nervous, worse than in the days in Afghanistan. Seemed
he couldn't take not knowing anymore, but the worst
was he wasn't sure how Dan would react when he saw him.
He got into the car, next to Jean.
none of my business, really", said Jean, lighting
another cigarette. "But I guess it's better to
talk about this now than later or never." He ran
his tongue over his molars, opened his lips there, which
I want him back."
shot him an ironic glance. "You know, seeing you've
tried everything else and now try to do the heroic method,
not sure you realized one thing."
likes being flirted with."
who rammed him against a wall in Kabul, who hit him
in the face, who sometimes mocked him when he was too
tired to pretend strength. Flirting. Their flirting
had been to get undressed, at least most of the time.
Apart from very few, very private, relaxed moments.
"He does?" And why, how would the deserter
know that? Had they
flirted? Flirted for a blowjob?
For a handjob. Hello, handsome stranger. Vadim shook
grinned. "He does. He is great to flirt with."
hand tightened. He didn't want to know. Didn't want
to see that grin. That grin that said Jean knew more
about Dan than he did. Something fucked-up and romantic.
He was competition. "Is he."
gave a short laugh. "Try wooing, Vadya. You know.
Being nice. Smiling. Compliments. An old friend once
said: "You want to fuck, you need to be friendly."
Try friendly. It's a change, don't you think?"
right. It's none of your business."
am trying to help, you know", huffed Jean.
you were still there, sometimes. When we talked, you
were there, in his head. You could see that in his eyes."
he fucked around with you because he misses me",
said Vadim, and it sounded poisonous even in his own
ears. "That what you're trying to say?"
hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. "Enough
about me to make him remember you, for sure."
and he was calling my name when he came." Ouch.
Fucking ouch. Vadim closed his eyes, bared his teeth.
"Fuck you. You needed to take revenge like that,
cursed. "Fuck you, Krasnorada. No, he didn't call
for you. All I did was make him feel good, for a fucking
change. You were there in that room, like a fucking
ghost. If I had wanted to take revenge, I'd have jumped
you at night, in your bunk, with a few of the guys and
beaten the shit out of you. Or shot you out there, on
patrol, and claimed I wasn't aware there was a bullet
in the chamber. That shit has happened before. Very
friendly fire. Don't think many of us would have cried
at your grave. But I fucking didn't."
drives me insane, you and him. Drives me insane. "Yeah,
dickhead." Jean cursed again. "Fuck, it's
none of your business, stuff just happened, I don't
pull this shit to get even with you."
just discovered you like cock."
groaned. "Now, leave me out of this."
you got yourself into it." Vadim shifted his body
to face Jean. "We'll get him out, that has priority.
I'll fight with you over him when we're back at camp."
laughed dryly. "Being nice means allowing people
their own choices."
not pulling out, then?"
and I are friends. Old-fashioned friends. Whatever else,
but that, definitely. Won't leave him to rot just because
you're snarling at me. No fucking way, sir. Deal with
it. And that's the last word on the matter. You better
do some serious thinking about how you fucking treat
him, Vadim, because I can sure as hell see your current
method isn't up to the task."
the desert, Dan was sitting down to feed the moaning
kid some water, sensing the desperation around him.
"They're getting us out on the ground." His
voice was firm, convincing the others. Wouldn't do to
let doubts creep to the surface. "Your lot, the
Delta guys, they'll be here soon, I bet, but in the
meantime, what do you think I was talking about on the
comm? Someone will get us out, the Brits have mercs
with more experience then all of the SAS, Delta and
Rangers, Marines and Navy Seals put together."
He flashed a grin while fumbling for his water bottle.
Best ration it, they didn't know how long it would take.
They were too many miles on foot away from the Saudi
Arabian or Kuwaiti borders and their only chance was
to head further to the West. 'The red mosaics', to the
left, the West, towards the border. Another country,
another hope for safety. Just away from those fuckwits
who hadn't realised the Gulf War was over.
can't make it." Jackson was lying with his back
against the slope of the river bed, holding his leg.
"Johnson needs medical care."
shrugged. "Sure he does, so do you. So does Gary
and so do I, but I'd be fucked if I let myself worry
about that. We have to get going, and we will."
Looking pointedly at Martinez. The guy was no older
than mid twenties, and no matter how much he was affected
by concussion and the painful neck wound, he was tall,
strong, and young. One of the buff ones, very much like
Matt. He'd be able to get going for a while longer.
you OK for a little jog?"
nodded carefully. Wiping the sweat off his face, encrusted
with blood, dirt and sand. "Hoo-rah!" He answered
and flashed a brave grin. Weary, worried, but Dan knew
the guy would do anything he could.
then, we're going West, along the wadi. As shitty as
it is to be a sitting duck in this river bed, at least
it gives some shelter, if need be. Best keep on the
move and hole in if we have to, waiting for sundown."
Dan glanced at Johnson, proceeding to get some water
down the kid's neck, who was moaning, half-conscious.
"We should get going straight away, improves our
chances we'll hit the border before they hit us."
He grinned without humour, "if they are not completely
stupid they'll realise we are heading West."
combined "Hoo-rah" was his answer and he grinned,
drinking a couple of mouthfuls of water. "Right,
since that's sorted, let's see who's tougher. Mad Dog
Brit or Gary Yank." Martinez laughed, despite the
situation, and they both got ready to pick up their
loads once more. Two men, carrying two others. Brothers
in spirit if not in arms.
started at a steady pace, slow, laden down with the
heavy weights and the relentless heat of the desert,
seeking shelter in meagre shadows wherever they could.
They made progress, albeit agonisingly slow. Walking
on, step after step and boot in front of boot, for what
seemed to go on forever, but when Dan glanced up at
the sun, following its trek through the sky, he realised
it had been no more than an hour or slightly more.
OK?" Dan glanced at Martinez whose step had just
faltered, stumbling out of his trance-like slog. Gary's
face was swimming with sweat. The guy was loosing too
much liquid and salt and Dan frowned beneath the rag
around his head and face.
grinned, the dust-filled lines around his eyes crinkling
as he did. "Forget about the 'Sir' bit, mate. I'm
just an old Warhound, stubborn enough to get us out
of this shithole." He managed to elicit a miniature
smile from the young guy. "How's your neck?"
like fuck." Martinez grimaced wryly and Dan nodded,
both of them still plodding on.
would, seems you got whiplash and concussion, but then
you know that. I bet you're nauseous. And kinda dizzy."
..." Martinez tried not to move his head and struggled
to walk in a straight line. "You could say that,
but I'm OK."
you are." Dan spotted a pile of stones close to
a bend in the river bed and stopped. "You're a
damn fine soldier, Gary Martinez, and I wouldn't know
how the fuck to get out of here without you."
got a grin out of the loadmaster when he came slowly
to a halt, swaying a moment but holding firmly onto
Jackson who had been very quiet the last hour. "Just
hope they get us out soon. You think they'll send Delta?"
yes, sure they will, but I know for a fact that there
are other specialists already on their way." No,
he didn't know, but he'd bet all those years of danger,
sex, and fucked-up love and lust, that the Russian was
already on his way. "Someone will get us out and
we're doing all we can to meet them closer to the border."
turned his head to glance at Martinez. "Give me
a hand, will you? Steady Chris on my back. Got to bend
down. I'll leave a sign for the ground team that only
they will understand." Only one, in fact. One man.
No matter how much shit Vadim had pulled, and how utterly
fucked up the Russian was, he'd heard the man he'd known
in the voice. The old determination and the stubbornness
to do something - anything - instead of sitting on his
arse. Like India, achieving the impossible.
down slowly, silently cursing the swollen wrist and
his buggered knees that were trying to buckle, Dan took
hold of three flat, large stones and a couple of smaller
ones while Martinez was steadying Johnson. One-handed
placing the three in a haphazard pile, with the two
on top of it, forming a random pointer to the direction
they were taking.
They'll understand. Let's have some water and get going."
Each of them had a mouthful, carefully rationing the
precious liquid. Dan gave some to Jackson and Martinez
pouring water into Johnson. Then it was time again to
keep moving. Side by side, the weight of the two bodies
pulling them down in the murderous heat. One more hour,
before they stopped once more and Dan formed another
covert pointer, trudging further on. Every so often
stopping for Dan to build a pile of stones.
kicking up lots of dirt", muttered Jean, glancing
behind. "Let's hope it's prayer-time, or something."
checked the watch. "No such luck. Start heading
towards two o'clock from here, we're trying to get to
that big wadi over there." He stared out over the
barren landscape. Empty country, the kind where every
piece of kit was necessary for survival, the kind where
a broken bone could spell doom. He touched his wrist,
rubbed it. Dan's was broken and probably hurting like
want to do the driving on the way back?"
do. I got trained for that. Could also man the gun.
Should be quite cosy back there."
grinned. "I know what you got trained to do. Spetsnaz
can do just about anything that makes an enemy miserable."
country was still completely empty, but there were a
few scraggly dusty barren trees standing around. Near
what had to be the wadi. The terrain turned rougher,
too, the ride got bumpy, nevermind the sweat that was
running from their bodies. Vadim was wet under the armoured
no mistake", said Vadim in a monotonous voice.
"We're not brothers or comrades after this. All
we do is get him out."
face was dark. "Copy."
nodded. "Good. You will not interfere."
rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever. Soft-spoken Casanova."
He gave a short laugh. "Hard to imagine, but you
must have been fun once. Your thing can't have been
all kicking and screaming. I disbelieve."
was getting towards late afternoon and the sun was starting
to lose its fierceness, when Jackson suddenly hit his
hand against Martinez' leg, trying to alert him. "Over
stopped, turned slowly to keep his balance, peered at
the horizon. He could see the dust cloud, even with
bare eyes. "Fuck." He looked around, swiftly
assessing the situation. "We got to hole in. They're
coming." It could be friend, but he expected foe.
spotted something. "Over there?" Pointing
at a sharper bend and what seemed like darker shadows.
spotted. Come on Gary, let's leg it." Dan fell
into a trot, faster than ever before. He didn't manage
to run, the body on his back too heavy, and he was just
too bloody knackered, overtaken by Martinez who picked
up speed. Fuck those twenty-something buff kids, Dan
thought, grit his teeth and forced his body into the
fastest speed he could manage while Johnson was crying
out in pain, jostled with every step. "Sorry mate,"
Dan shouted backwards, breathless, "Either this,
or getting caught." His lungs were already burning
and his knees? He'd gladly chop them off right now,
together with the whole left side and that goddamned
wrist. Perhaps he should have retired years ago. Dan
just about made it to the recess in the raised river
bed, when the dust cloud was getting closer. Fuck, they
had a minute or to.
in! Get the fuck covered!" He went down on his
knees, nearly screaming as he did, but he couldn't just
slam the kid onto the ground, bad enough to hear the
cries of pain. Managed to put Johnson down without hitting
the rotor in his chest, and pushed the body into the
recess that formed a miniature cave. Johnson was scrambling
with his hands, tried to help, same with Jackson, who
had enough strength left to pull himself deeper inside,
despite the badly broken leg.
threw the rifle down and the bergan off his back, shouted
orders at Martinez. "Backpack, get the blanket."
Shovelling sand towards the entrance with his bare hand,
boots kicking, pushed the rifle lying across the opening.
"Get in!" At Martinez, who had pulled out
the dust-coloured blanket. Their best chance for survival
was to camouflage themselves. Dan got hold of the top
of the blanket, cursing the pain in his left hand, too
fucked to do anything with it. Pulled the blanket over
the mouth of the recess, held it down with his left
elbow while picking up stones with his right hand, piling
them onto the edge to keep the blanket up. Shit, he
could already hear the engine of the vehicle, and he
wasn't naïve enough to believe it was the rescue
Muttered, no more time left. Their disguise had to do
or they'd fucking die, and he slipped into the hole
himself, this time crying out with pain, unable to suppress
it. He'd landed on the mass of bruises on his left side,
but was lucid enough to pull close the corner of the
blanket. Lying on his belly, right beside Martinez,
with the two injured men behind them.
luck to us." He whispered to the other man, before
taking the rifle and flicking off the safety. He knew
the make, Yank or Brit or Russian, didn't make a difference.
A killing tool like any other. He'd be a crap aim with
just one good hand, but he'd do what he could if he
had to. He saw Martinez from the corner of his eyes,
doing the same with his rifle, while Jackson was taking
hold of his pistol in the back of the tiny cave. Dan
and the loadmaster were peering out from underneath
the blanket-shield, muzzles aimed into the wadi.
were there. Voices, engine, dust and shouts. Slowed-down
saw Martinez' lips moving and knew the guy was praying.
vehicles, open topped roofs, men clinging to the sides.
One a battered old Landrover, the other a pickup truck.
Of course, what else. Paint peeling from the first,
which appeared to have been a military vehicle, the
truck a rusted ramshackle red. Dan was sweating, watching,
fully concentrated. They were so close, he could hear
every word, could understand most of it, and what he
heard wasn't pleasant. No way in fucking hell he'd let
the other guys know what he'd overheard. They didn't
need to know what those bastards were planning to do
with them, should they catch them alive. Or dead, for
that matter. Dan was grinding his teeth when he heard
what they had done to Campbell's corpse. No, no way
in heaven or hell he'd let the Yanks know what happened
to their comrade. The dog tag was in Dan's pocket, that
would have to do. Who needed a grave when nature took
care of one of their own, with the flesh rotting in
the desert and the bones bleaching in the sun.
seemed like endless hours, while those men were searching
the ground, weapons at the ready. Dan was sweating for
once, could only hope their disguise was good enough.
One of the insurgents came closer and closer, almost
in touching distance, but kept looking just a short
distance to the left or the right. Thank fuck to the
army, their scratchy blankets and the colour of sand
and dust in this godforsaken place.
heartbeat stopped and Martinez' breath had became barely
audible. They were absolutely silent, guessing that
Jackson had to be covering Johnson's mouth to keep the
kid's moans from escaping. The enemy was standing near,
looking, close enough to smell him, touch him, sense
him. Kill him. One heartbeat, another. One breath, and
perhaps never another one if that bastard looked just
a little more to the left and then
Dan almost sighed with relief, glancing at Martinez.
Silence, still no sound from any of them.
miracle happened, the heavily armed man was walking
back to the pick-up truck, shouting at the others that
he hadn't seen anything, and they should search further
didn't think he'd ever heard a sweeter sound than the
engines of the battered vehicles revving up and moving
fuck, that was close." He put the rifle down and
dropped his head onto his forearm, just breathing for
a few moments until he felt a hand prodding his ribs.
It was Gary. "Guess it's safer to stay here?"
turned his head, still resting on his arm and nodding.
The rag around his head was sweat soaked and he hurt
like fuck. Had a fair idea what the others had to feel
like, and he could sense from the lack of movement in
the kid that he was getting rapidly worse. "You're
right. Our best bet right now is to hole up. The insurgents
might be back and it'll get fucking cold in a couple
of hours." Dan pulled the blanket slightly to the
side, let air and light into their jam-packed miniature
to get some scran down our necks. Good thing daddy Mad
Dog brought din-dins, eh?" He grinned, teeth bared,
a valiant attempt to keep the guys' spirits up. Nothing
was ever lost until it was truly over. "Water,
dry sarnies and bikkies, anyone?"
Sarnies?" Jackson commented weakly from the back
of the cave. Covered in sand and dust but keeping up
remarkably well, despite the bandages around his leg
being soaked with dried blood. "You fucking Brits
and your weird language."
laughed, a short-stabbed sound. "It'll be sandwiches
and cookies for you, then, or nothing." Pulling
the bergan close he rummaged one-handed, pulling out
the parka, then water and food, together with a few
packs of bandages. Martinez took his helmet off, doing
the same for the kid. Jackson took his own off, could
just about move his arms in the confined space, and
wiped with a dirty sleeve over his sweat and blood streaked
face. Dan rubbed his sweaty face with the rag, waiting
for Martinez to divide the food. Some for now, an emergency
ration for later. They didn't have a clue how long they
might have to be on the run. Neither of them was sure
what to do about the kid, could he stomach food or even
swallow, or would water be enough? They decided on the
ate in silence, too exhausted and in too much pain and
discomfort to talk anymore, while Johnson was slipping
in and out of consciousness, until his sounds of pain
became louder and Dan checked him over, figuring out
how many hours it had been since he had the morphine.
Martinez offered his own syrette when Chris started
to whimper loudly, hardly able to get down some water,
and Dan delivered the shot before another bandage was
fastened across the kid's chest.
all rested for a moment, nursing their injuries, with
Dan frowning at his thickly swollen wrist and Gary prodding
gingerly at his neck, before holding his head in his
hands. Ken lay still, fighting against the pain, and
Chris was knocked out by the morphine.
sun was sinking rapidly and Dan tore himself out of
equally cursing and ignoring the pain his aging body
was in. "OK, you guys, I'll keep watch. Gary, your
head's fucked, you need some sleep before we start walking
again in a few hours. I'll stay awake and do guard duty.
I'm used to that shit." He grinned even though
he didn't feel like it. "Old men don't need much
sleep, trust me." Raising his brows when Martinez
dared to question his decision, trying to argue with
Dan who was struggling one-handed into his parka.
decided to get out the heavier calibre ammo. "Sure
you've heard about Mad Dog's speciality? Faggots like
me don't need sleep, alright, guys? You cuddle up to
keep warm and this poof here guards your beauty sleep."
He bared his teeth in an exaggerated grin, and it did
the trick. The look on their faces was priceless. The
reminder had been enough to shake Martinez and Jackson
out of their stupor, nodding, complying, and simply
doing what that aging Merc said. He'd got them this
far, he was probably crazy enough to get them even further.
wake you in a few hours." Dan watched the guys
rearrange themselves as the sun was going down, speedier
than in the Afghan mountains. Johnson lay closest to
Dan, he could feel the kid's still body pressed against
his own as he sat crouched. Back leaning against the
side wall of their miniature cave, Dan kept mostly hidden
behind the blanket that was providing warmth and a barrier
to the cold night air. Shelter, like he remembered from
too many barren caves.
The endless mountains and the overwhelming sky. Once
they impressed themselves into a man's mind, eating
into the very marrow of his bones, he could never escape
Dog?" Dan turned his head at Martinez' quiet voice.
"We'll make it, won't we?"
face was already steeped in shadows, and all he could
see from the young Yank was the white of his eyes and
might just live." He murmured and smiled.
was falling rapidly and Dan settled in for the long
haul. It didn't matter if he was in pain or tired or
every single bone in his worn-out body was aching. Didn't
matter a shit, in fact, it came in rather useful. Meant
he would stay awake, despite the weariness and utter
exhaustion. Cradling the rifle in his lap, the useless
left hand wrapped inside the parka, trying to ignore
the throbbing in the broken bones. Peering at the silent
desert night through a small window at the blanket's
didn't mind keeping watch in the silence and the overpowering
darkness. It was something Dan knew better than the
country he came from. Britain wasn't his home anymore,
and, the place that would always own his heart was the
land of vast emptiness: majestic, deadly, and overwhelming
under the immense night sky.
into the night, Dan let his gaze get lost in the layer
upon layer of stars. He'd made his personal peace with
Afghanistan a long time ago. He'd become part of the
mountains, so that the mountains could become part of
him. And thus they did not swallow him alive, instead
had welcomed the insignificant human. Cradling him in
heat, wrapping him in snow and ice and giving him silence
and more knowledge of himself than he'd ever wanted.
That, and the gift of a Russian. A man he'd once loved
and despite everything, he was still loving and always
would. No matter how much what.
tried to run away, hadn't he? Dan huffed, breath steaming
in front of his face and he clumsily wrapped the rag
once more around his head, to protect against the cold.
That's what he got for trying to escape his destiny:
a fucking helicopter crash and a broken wrist. His life
intertwined with another's. Why did he not just accept
that they were fucked to hell and back and could never
leave the other. Only through death, and even that had
failed, hadn't it?
leaned his head back, stared up into the sky while listening
to the breaths of the men behind him. Three lives, his
charge, and how funny that a man like him, who'd been
operating on his own most of his life, was now trying
to save those three men. The Cold War was over, and
suddenly they had all become friends. Him, those kids,
and the one he'd asked to come for the rescue.
didn't even claim he understood the world anymore -
nor ever had. He'd just done a job in the name of Queen
and Country and what a cop-out excuse that had been
for what he had done. Duties. No questions. Killing,
surviving, training insurgents, and a whole lot of other
shit. But he regretted nothing. Nothing at all, except,
perhaps, for the inability to feel sorry.
shrugged, fished for a cigarette, now that he rested
he was craving the addiction. He managed to light it
one-handed in the dark, keeping the glowing end out
of the open. He wouldn't be the first man killed at
night because of a fag, and he wouldn't be the last,
if he wasn't careful.
had to stay awake, the hours were dragging by slowly,
while weighing heavy on his weary mind and shattered
body. It was the memories that kept him awake, and after
two and a half years he finally allowed himself to just
remember. All of it. Every single moment with and without
Vadim. All of the last eleven years.
good, the bad, and the entirely ugly.
was breaking at last and Dan was still awake, freezing.
Curled up into a ball to keep the body heat in, his
head resting against the earthen wall. Glancing now
and again towards the interior of the miniature cave,
he had listened to the moans of pain throughout the
night. Martinez had been snoring, he'd no doubt have
a concussion-induced headache from hell when he woke.
He dreaded to think what Jackson felt like, with Chris
was thankfully mostly out of it.
sky was turning a dark turquoise from the East, when
Dan stretched his legs with a groan. Dog tired, but
he couldn't allow himself to drop his vigilance, not
until they were found, and it couldn't be anytime too
soon. He was still functional, but soon he'd unable
to think straight with tiredness and would be as useless
as the rest of his ragtag bunch of survivors. No, crew.
Aye, that'd be it. His crew, because he felt
strangely responsible for those guys, perhaps because
he was simply so much older than those kids. Even the
pilot was no older than his late twenties. Seemed he'd
become a Sugar Daddy, after all.
his toes, Dan accidentally moved his left hand, wincing
as he did, the wrist stiff by now, but the pain had
turned into a constant, dull throb which was bearable,
and at least it had kept him awake. The pain and his
thoughts. Rummaging in his bergan, Dan produced some
more food, started to cut it up into portions, before
checking the water. Enough for all of them to get by
for a few hours more. Even taking the kid's unstable
condition into consideration.
was time to wake the crew. They had to trek on, no point
in waiting like rabbits in a hole, with the chance for
rescue being as insecure as it was. Better to move than
to sit and hope. Prayers had never kept anyone alive.
The Yanks weren't particularly 'liked' by those insurgents,
too similar to the Mujas and their hatred for the Soviets,
for Dan's liking. He snorted softly, being a Brit wasn't
much better either. He had a funny feeling they'd be
considered as nothing better than Big Daddy America's
spit-licking lapdog. No more bullterrier, let alone
Empire, but Dan noticed with sleep deprived amusement
that he just couldn't give a shit.
nothing else counted, and he was about to wake Martinez,
when he noticed the faint sound of a vehicle engine
in the distance. "Shit," Dan murmured, were
the bastards coming back? Or was there a chance for
was still driving, manoeuvring the jeep with an uncanny
instinct for the treacherous bitch that the Iraqi desert
was. Vadim scanned the horizon - the engine sound carried
far and if they were unlucky, the insurgents would be
upon them like ants on a beetle. He could only hope
that those fanatics weren't feeling adventurous enough
to go out hunting mostly blind in the darkness.
was somewhat impressed with Jean's skill in the desert,
navigating with no light, trusting his all too human
senses, eyes and ears, mostly. Finding his way like
an ocelot in the dark, a small, nocturnal predator that
should somehow pierce the darkness. He murmured something
about that, which made Jean laugh: "Picked that
up in Djibouti. Apart from a few unpleasant health things."
had no idea where that place was, and kept scanning
the darkness. He was cold, and sweating from the tension.
Sitting duck in the vast expanse of what would always
be enemy territory. Dan out there, maybe dead or dying,
wounded, and he forced that thought down. It was a rescue
operation, and he was actually in a far better shape
than Dan right now.
up front." Jean slowed down, trying to find the
best angle to get into the riverbed.
saw next to nothing, felt almost useless, wondered how
on earth he was supposed to find Dan, who, by all rights,
wouldn't light a fire under these circumstances, or
they'd found them long ago.
is the direction they must be heading", murmured
Jean. "They must be here somewhere, if you ask
I'm not asking you, thought Vadim, while Jean accelerated
and forced the car down the slope, bucking on the stones
in the riverbed, the machine roaring.
the small cave, Dan was crouching, rifle at the ready.
He had alerted Martinez, Jackson was awake as well,
despite the pain and blood loss, and only the kid continued
to hover in semi unconsciousness. "I have no idea
who the fuck they are." Dan murmured to Gary, whose
face was covered in sweat and had paled considerably,
visible even in the faint purple light of the approaching
hoping it's the rescue team," Dan whispered, "but
I'd be buggered if I could tell." Martinez nodded,
making the sign of the cross, which Dan noticed with
a tickle of amusement. If that made the man feel better,
why shouldn't he revert to superstition. He'd been tempted
himself, often enough.
outside, hidden behind the blanket, Dan kept his narrowed
eyes peeled on the wadi and the approaching vehicle.
hopeless", muttered Vadim and slapped against Jean's
arm. "Let me get off."
must be somewhere around this wadi. I see nothing."
slowed down, and Vadim was glad when he felt the stony
riverbed under his boots, advancing while the jeep followed
slowly behind him. First, Jean's closeness was hard
to bear, second, he assumed he'd see and hear more if
he was outside the damned car.
fifty meters or so calling out, quietly. "Dan?"
Hoped they'd be awake if they were in hiding and would
react. The morning was almost there, an odd glow that
still didn't allow a third dimension - everything seemed
flat and lifeless.
was concentrating on every sound and sight, adrenaline
winning over the tiredness. Making up for his age with
sheer cunning and experience. There, suddenly, he was
sure he'd heard a voice, certain he wasn't imagining
it. Mouthing to Martinez and the man nodded, affirming
sticking his head out from the cave mouth and through
the shielding blanket, Dan listened intently again,
yes! A voice. No doubt, and he'd be fucked
if he hadn't heard his name. Taking a risk and trusting
his senses, Dan took a small stone and threw it out
into the wadi. Waiting, then throwing another. A third
one in his hand, waiting.
Just a sound. Vadim paused, frowning, wondered if he'd
kicked a stone lose. Turned to face the side of the
wadi, staring into the odd grey twilight. "Dan?"
He gestured towards the jeep and Jean stopped, jumping
out with his rifle.
I didn't." Kept staring at the place, a strange
feeling in his guts. Like he was being watched, and
every caveman instinct told him there was something
intent and focused close by.
gave him a frown. "Why are you stopping, then?"
I feel something. Bad way to be professional, but Jean
was a soldier too, and likely knew about these odd haunches,
the feeling at the back of one's neck. "We should
check that out, over there."
movement. Dan couldn't make out faces yet, the dawn
flattened everything until it became angles and planes
of shadows. Yet the way the shadow moved, no, two shadows.
Familiar, and he nodded to Martinez before throwing
another stone, this time even closer. Deep inside, he
knew who was out there, moving, but he couldn't bet
the life of three Yanks on that gut instinct.
rifle still trained onto the approaching men, he suddenly
heard that voice again. "Dan", no doubt, his
name, and he'd recognise the voice amongst a thousand.
his hand on Martinez to reassure him, before calling
out quietly, "Here. Over here, Vadim." Dan
didn't quite know what he felt, such an intense mix
of jumbled emotion. The biggest one simply relief.
gave an odd laugh, disbelief and something more. "I'll
head back to the car and get the kit." He grinned.
"Well done." With that, he walked off, and
Vadim shouldered his weapon and moved towards Dan's
voice. Knew it was him and couldn't help feeling elated
and almost happy, despite the fact they were still so
deep in the shit it didn't bear comparison.
crawled stiffly out of the cave and stood, grinning.
Pale with tiredness beneath his dark tan, exhausted,
and there was a pile of men in hiding behind him. Vadim
didn't know what to say as he approached, so instead
took the canteen off his PLCE and offered it first,
arm stretched out. "We brought you kit", he
stated, looking at Dan all the time, eyes checking him
over. Alive. Banged up, but alive.
took one large gulp before handing the canteen back.
No way was he going to take more of the precious water
even though he suspected they had more in the jeep.
It was the other guys who needed it the most.
held the canteen, not sure what to do with it, expected
Dan to take it back. Saw a drop of water on Dan's lips.
Shit. He noticed.
have no fucking clue how glad I am to see you."
Dan wiped his lips with the back of his good hand, before
slinging the rifle across his back. "We had a close
shave last night. Damn close." Gesturing to the
men inside, Martinez came crawling out, swaying as he
stood, despite his efforts to find his balance.
forced himself to look over at the men, while standing
in front of Dan, reluctant to move. Unable to fall into
the easy camaraderie that soldiers shared. He wasn't
a soldier anymore. Just a merc. Different rules. He
still followed the motion of Dan's hand.
Martinez," Dan nodded to him, making the 'introductions',
"concussion." Martinez just grimaced. "Chris
Johnson," Dan pointed, "worst one of all,
we need to get him carried into the Lannie. Ken Jackson,
the pilot, open leg fracture, but holding up well."
There was a sound from the cave, like a dry huff or
gave the others a look, not actually interested in the
men at all. For all he cared, they were walking - or
crawling - meat. It was Dan, always Dan. And he stood
here, not feeling worthless - first time in what felt
I," Dan shrugged, "I'm just little old me
as always. Only more worse for wear than usual."
And awake and on adrenaline for more hours than he cared
Part of cavalry", murmured Vadim, then stepped
towards Martinez and offered him the canteen, who took
it with a 'thanks', and had a good drink before crawling
back inside the cave to share the water out amongst
the others. Vadim was turning on his heel the next instant.
"Okay. We'll get you ready to go. Should use time
while bitches are still praying and are turned towards
saw the second man returning, and knew the moment he
saw him moving, that it was Jean. How damned fitting
in a way, and he shook his head with wry amusement without
saying a word. Before Jean arrived he switched into
Russian, quietly, only for Vadim to hear, "I knew
you'd find me."
smiled. "Had good directions. Good you're in one
piece." Would have killed to be able to touch Dan,
but it was Jean who did it, clapping Dan on the shoulder.
a lift, Mad Dog? Got you guys some water and breakfast.
Camping without gear out here is not my idea of a holiday."
laughed, but winced at the shoulder slap. His whole
body was sore, and the left side made every movement
an interesting experience. "We should get moving
first, need to get Chris and Ken checked over, possibly
re-bandaged. Water now, breakfast will have to wait
a moment. We had shared some of my usual extra pile
nodded. "Sure thing. You relax and have a bite,
Vadim and I check on your team there." He handed
Dan a bottle and a couple energy bars, giving Vadim
a nod when Dan sat down, trusting the Russkies to deal
with the mess.
Help me with the guys
headed towards the Yanks, handed out more water and
food, then checked on the wounds, getting the worst
casualty ready to be transported to the jeep. All taken
care off, Vadim helped, every now and then looking over
murmured under his breath in Russian: "See? It's
a good start."
you", said Vadim, almost silently. He headed back
to the Lannie to get a blanket so they could carry the
kid that looked more dead than alive but was still clinging
on and fighting, while Jean had a look at the big guy's
neck. Vadim was glad he could concentrate on the team,
doing the things that were necessary, only had to function,
they had finished, they found Dan still sitting, knees
to his chest, fucked hand on the ground, the other arm
wrapped around his legs and his head on his knees. Fast
touched Dan's shoulder and crouched. "Hey. Home
express leaves now. We're ready to go." He seemed
about to hug Dan, and Vadim checked on the men in the
landrover again, swallowing that bitter taste that crept
up. The familiarity. That fucking trust. He fished for
another bottle and drank, concentrating on what he had
to do. He'd rip out Jean's throat later, back in camp.
," Dan mumbled, before suddenly jerking awake.
"Shit." Wiping his eyes, he shook his head
like a dog, in an attempt to wake up. "Sorry. Guess
I'm too old for this shit." He held his good hand
out to Jean who took it and pulled a groaning Dan up
to stand, before he rubbed all over his face with the
heel of his hand. "Got water in the vehicle?"
enough for a swimming pool, but enough so you won't
piss sand anytime soon." Jean laughed. "Can't
have that, now, can we?" Walking beside Dan, protectively,
like he was ready to help the other, should he falter
again, and Vadim's eyes spelled murder.
nodded and they made their way to the long wheel base
Landrover, with the kid lying stretched out on the floor
in the back, the pilot lying on one bench and Gary sitting
on the opposite one. Dan looked inside, then back at
Jean and Vadim. "Front or back for me? You two
got your bearings?"
here has the combat driver training. I'll ride with
the kids and keep the rear clear." Jean winked
at Dan, again one of his stupid jokes, but as expected,
it made Dan laugh while Jean climbed in.
Dan was still grinning when he clambered into the passenger
seat, arranging himself and the weapons, rifle right
there, ready should it be needed. He found the two litre
water bottle wedged between seat and door, and had at
least half of it. Feeling better after re-hydrating
shook his head. "Been some time." He climbed
into the driver's seat, got his bearings, started the
machine and turned back into the wadi, which was the
best bet at the moment. Providing good solid ground
and a little cover. Of course, it was also a likely
point for a trap.
idea how many miles we are into open territory?"
Dan was in the process of unfolding the map one-handed,
while being rattled about by the bumpy ride, causing
him to clench his teeth now and again, his bruised body
protesting. Had to be a hell of a lot worse for the
casualties in the back.
miles is my best guess", murmured Vadim, going
for speed above stealth - he wanted to cover as many
miles as possible while the towelheads were still busy
with prayer and breakfast - and get the casualties out
of the desert.
have a funny feeling those bastards haven't quite given
up yet." Glancing backwards, Dan saw Jean scanning
the rear and Martinez doing likewise, as much as the
concussed man managed to concentrate.
it a gut feeling, but I've got an itch and it isn't
a good one." Dan frowned, talking in Russian, he
didn't want the Yanks to hear. Jean was a different
cast him a sideways glance and nodded. "Yes. Depending
on how well they are organized, they can still fuck
us up. We'll grow an escort when we are on safer ground
for the others to operate. Fucking Yank cowards won't
risk another chopper."
not just that. Don't forget the political ramifications
or whatever else they call that shit." Dan switched
between Russian and English in one sentence, fluently.
prefer being alive to being politically correct."
The last two words were English as well, as if Vadim
couldn't be bothered to translate the concept into Russian.
Vadim jerked the wheel to the right to evade a dried
out tree trunk, almost knocking Jean off the back and
rattling everybody else.
Dan cried out before biting his lip to shut himself
up. Bad enough to hear the cries of pain from the wounded
men, he didn't need to add to that. "Wherever they
taught you driving, Russkie, it wasn't aimed at carrying
old ladies around."
see no old ladies."
and fuck you, too." Dan grinned wryly, then scanned
the horizon, before using his finger to trace their
route on the map, trying to find the safest way. He
had to give up in the end, shaking his head. "Fucking
territory. Nothing but open terrain and the wadi's still
our best bet. Seems to be the straightest line back
stared at the map again, frowning. "There'll be
a sharp bend in about twenty miles, that's when we should
get out to cross the desert."
nodded. "Also a great place for an ambush
but if we don't take that, we get deeper into their
nodded, didn't need to say anything, and even Jean shut
up for once.
covered ground fast, Vadim very nearly risking the jeep's
axes at several points when he just barged through rough
patches that Jean on the way in had evaded - but back
then they still had time, and cover of darkness. The
cries of pain abated from the back, perhaps because
the casualties were getting weaker. Dan didn't want
to know. As long as the kid lived. It seemed of utmost
importance that Chris had to survive. Unlike another
young soldier, back in the Afghan mountains.
drank with one hand, whole body constantly shifting
as he drove like a madman. Teeth gritted against the
dust they were kicking up, and the constant knocks and
jumps and jerks - they'd all be sore tomorrow, but hopefully
were getting closer towards the bend that Dan had pointed
out. The river bed was getting narrower, but also flatter
on one side, allowing them to take the Landrover back
out of the wadi. The bend turned sharply, though, making
it impossible to see ahead, and that's when all of the
men fell silent. Concentrating on every little sign,
scanning the area, brightly lit by merciless morning
seemed to be amiss, no movements, no suspicious object
anywhere. They were getting closer to the shallow part
that would lead out of the riverbed back onto open terrain,
when a sudden flash and almighty noise shook the vehicle.
was thrown out of his passenger seat, slamming with
his head against the roof, when a grenade exploded right
under the left front wheel. "Fuck!" He yelled,
by instinct taking hold of anything near the window,
but his left hand was useless and he lost orientation
as the Landrover began to topple. "Get hold of
the wounded!" was all he could shout, helpless
himself, falling out of the seat and sliding towards
the driver, when the Lannie tipped over onto the right
was momentarily disoriented, got his bearings before
the car tipped over onto the side. Managed to kick the
door open and throw himself out, before crawling through
a tunnel of limbs and blood the way it looked. Grabbed
hold of an assault rifle on the way out of the vehicle,
while Jean managed to free himself as well, immediately
evacuating the wounded - behind that landrover, out
of the way.
only man still stuck in the vehicle was Dan. Knocked
out momentarily when Vadim made it outside. Instead
of crashing on top of the other body, his head hit the
steering wheel and then the rocks and dust underneath
the open door. Luckily getting trapped in the Landrover
that presented the underside of its carriage. The metal
stopped the bullets that were being fired from across
the wadi. He regained consciousness the next second,
dizzy, yet already trying to get out of the car. If
they hit the tank he'd be a goner, fried to a crisp.
wiped his face, noticed there was blood, but he didn't
feel the sting of sweat in a fresh wound, so he supposed
it wasn't his. "Jean, get the fucking rifle!"
Snarling as Jean was dragging out Chris, the worst casualty.
Martinez only needed to be turned into the right direction
and yelled at to get his ass going.
fucked!" shouted Vadim to Jean. Jean nodded, baring
his teeth in an exasperated grin. Vadim risked a glance,
Dan was still in the fucking Landrover. He should get
him out. But that was not the right decision. Stay operational,
fuck the wounded if necessary. Stay operational at all
costs. Vadim cursed, took the assault rifle faster,
reached for the pocket with mags. He had plenty of ammo,
plus hand grenades. That should be enough. Jean was
just dragging the pilot out, pulling and tearing despite
the moans of pain. At least the fucking deserter worked
well under pressure. "Okay. Shit. You stay right
here, Jean, and get Dan out."
and which fucking Marine Corps?"
don't need the MC to mop up some towelheads."
you. You get Dan out. You want him, you fucking get
him out, or I'll come back to haunt you." Vadim
pushed himself off to run, jump, hoped the dirt and
dust covered him enough so he could flank them. Suicide
on all counts.
had managed to turn himself around, enough to be able
to peer through a hole in the mangled car, where the
grenade had torn open the bodywork. He was struggling
as hard as he could to get out of the goddamned wreck,
but his leg was stuck between passenger seat, gear stick,
driver's seat and steering wheel. "Fuck!"
Hissed between his teeth, he was immersed in a cacophony
of automatic fire, shouting and cries of pain, while
his own blood rushed in his ears. No way he'd give up,
had to get out of this goddamned trap, but the leg wouldn't
budge and his bloody hand was useless. He was almost
screaming with rage and frustration, when he noticed
a man run into the riverbed and past the mangled vehicle,
sprinting towards the other side.
Dan yelled when he realised who was the lunatic. "Fuck,
no! Vadim!" Felt redoubled strength come back to
him, frantically pushing, pulling and rattling at anything
that was likely to give to get him out of the fucking
cursed. "Keep your head in, Dan!" He pulled
a knife and hammered it into the soft top, just glad
the Landrover had come to lie on its side, one lucky
thing in a string of "fuck yous" from the
gods. Slicing the heavy cloth open, working frantically
because he should be returning fire to give Vadim cover,
and didn't, mostly because he had no idea whatsoever
how many insurgents there were. Reaching inside, he
saw how Dan was wedged in, and dove deeper to help free
the leg. "We need another shooter. You can rest
later", he murmured, cracking a joke to deflect
Dan's attention from the fact Vadim was just doing something
as brazenballed as if he'd still be spetsnaz and had
regimental pride for lunacy to defend.
me out, get me the fuck out!" Dan didn't care about
jokes nor deflection, all he could see was Vadim running,
firing, and throwing himself into the lion's den. With
combined effort they finally got his leg free, skinning
it in the process but he couldn't give less of a shit.
Jean pulled him behind the vehicle for cover.
hand's fucked. Aim's not as it should be. I cover those
bastards broad-range, you pick them out." Dan flashed
his bloodied teeth, "the crazy Russkie's taking
out the nest."
that's the plan. Doesn't take a great sniper
Jean checked on the casualties, told them to stay the
fuck put, while Dan snatched the rifle that was still
in the cab. He looped his arm through some magazine
rounds, before crawling towards the top of the wadi,
keeping as much in the shelter of the overturned vehicle
as he could. Firing at will, protecting the lunatic
as much as he could, by making it impossible for the
insurgents to lift their heads above their position.
lined up careful shot after careful shot, shooting at
anything he could see, any motion, worked completely
from his guts, the stress of the fight burning every
thought from his brain.
screams, and somebody jumped out of cover to run, keeping
his head covered. Jean drew a bead and shot him in the
chest, twice, making the man crumple. And another explosion.
fuck, yes!" Dan yelled, while he continued
spraying the insurgent's area with bullets. The explosion
tore across the desert and when the dust settled Dan
saw bodies, limbs, torn flesh. He stopped firing for
a moment, listened. Nothing. Shouted at Jean to shut
the fuck up and stop the shooting, but there was still
nothing. The fuckers were dead, he'd bet on it, but
all Dan wanted to know was if another bastard was alive.
behind cover, somebody raised a rifle - SA-80, British
make, not a goddamned AK - high, then stood up, Vadim,
covered all over in red dirt. Looking tired, but grinning,
a shit eating grin that indicated adrenaline was in
overdrive and every cell in his body celebrated the
fact it was alive. He made the 'all clear' sign towards
them, then walked down to where the explosion had happened.
There were a couple shots. Twice. Again, two shots.
Vadim finished off the wounded.
shot a round into the air to indicate they'd understood,
then let himself slide back down towards the wreck of
the Lannie. Heart pounding, pulse racing and grinning
like a fool. "Fucking bastard did it." He
smirked at Jean. "He's still a lethal cunt."
Pure pride shone out those words, his eyes and the grin
that threatened to split his face, before turning his
attention to the three Yanks.
Jean shook his head. "That's something he can do",
he murmured, almost toneless.
was unconscious, didn't even make a sound anymore, and
fresh blood was gathering around the edge of the bandages
where the piece of the rotor had been jostled, but he
had a pulse, albeit weakly. Jackson was staring at Dan,
pain written all across his dirt encrusted face, sill
trying to grin and giving a thumbs-up. Holding his leg
that was drenched in fresh blood, which got him a pad
on the shoulder from Dan and a "sorry, mate,"
which the pilot answered with a shrug. Martinez sat,
helmeted head in his hand, obviously nauseous, with
the concussion in full force, but he had still fired
his weapon. A fine soldier, and Dan grinned. "Bet
you think we're all lunatics, eh?" Gary grimaced,
"No, buddy, but that Russian. He's fucking crazy."
laughed with the relief of being alive and knowing that
Vadim had made it. Turning towards the scene of carnage,
he shouted, "Get your arse over here! We got to
get going." Adding towards the others, "Anyone
got any idea how exactly?"
broke into a trot, crossed the wadi again and climbed
back up on their side. "The bitches have a pickup
truck. Plus MG on tripod." He wiped his face again,
red dirt caked with red blood, but he looked fine, no
visible wounds anywhere. "We just grab the Yanks
and get them across the river. But we need to get going.
They had a radio, means they're in touch with others."
nodded. "You two get Chris on a blanket, Gary and
I help Ken, alright?" He was looking round the
crew, greeted with exhausted stares and tired nods.
That wasn't good enough, and Dan used the same trick
he'd use before. "I said, alright, guys?"
In a sharp voice that left no room for questioning,
and he earned himself some "hoo-rah", which
made him grin and nod.
then, let's get going." Dan was so knackered, he
could hardly get himself to move, but there was no alternative
and he'd never let anyone else realise that he was worn
down to the bare bones. Helping Martinez, they managed
to get Jackson up between them. Carrying him across
the wadi while Jean got all their essentials out of
the wrecked Landrover to take them across, before getting
Chris onto the blanket and into the pick-up truck. Once
all of them were in the vehicle, with Dan in the passenger
seat, Vadim driving and the others backing the open,
he allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment, murmuring,
"just get us the fuck out of here." Adding
in Russian, without looking at Vadim. "Please."
had started the machine already, hands still slightly
unsteady from the stress, then looked at Dan, his stretched
throat, the way he swallowed, the stubble and exhaustion,
and would have died to be able to kiss that throat,
or touch his thigh. Feeling pain well up, and with it,
headed straight towards the base, kicking up a massive
flag of dust behind them, driving again like a man possessed
and uncaring, but at least the desert was smoother ground,
following Dan's directions, with Jean holding onto the
MG on the back and Martinez making sure the casualties
didn't get too badly jostled.
helicopters appeared above them. Americans. Jean waved
at them and nodded towards the Yanks. "Your friends
are here!" Shouting against the noise.
kept his jaws tense, concentrating on driving, but relaxed
a fraction once they were covered.
craned his neck, caught a glimpse of the choppers and
relaxed back into the seat, staring straight ahead while
a slow smile began to creep across his features. "We
made it." Murmured, then again, when the compound
came into view, "we fucking made it." Louder,
until they were racing towards the gates and the first
soldiers and medical teams came running towards them.
He shouted, glancing backwards at the crew in the truck,
"we goddamned motherfucking made it!" He was
laughing, despite the pain, the exhaustion, the dust
and noise and the fact that it was all more than just
allowed himself a smile, Dan's pure joy at being alive
- and safe - was contagious, even though he didn't quite
feel the same elation, not yet. It took him a while
to let go.
reached for another water bottle and drank, closing
his eyes, grinning as he celebrated his triumph - live
and fight another day, snatched from the teeth of death.
was still laughing when they stopped and the doors were
being opened. He almost fell into the arms of some of
the soldiers when he tried to get out of the truck and
tripped over his own feet. He grinned, looking for Vadim,
couldn't see him, not in the crowd that came running
with stretchers and equipment. Finding himself in the
middle of an organised chaos.
was lost in the crowd, calling Vadim's name, shouting
for Jean, but he had to concede defeat when he saw British
uniforms and a whole team of medics that was adamant
to put him onto a stretcher. That's when he gave up
and, without further protest, let himself be taken across
to the British compound and the medical station there.
lay on the examination table before he could say "poof"
and his soiled kit was stripped off him. He meant to
make some stupid-arsed joke at the nurse that dealt
with the skinned leg and the bruised side, and at the
surgeon who checked the wrist, injecting local anaesthetics
to prepare him for the x-rays. But all that was forgotten
all of a sudden. Too much effort, and he hardly realised
how he was slipping rapidly and without resistance into
an utterly exhausted sleep while they were still working
on him, and before x-rays and general anaesthetic to
reset the broken bones.
didn't even hear the nurse protest and laugh, when she
was told she'd have to clean up the casualty with a
sponge instead, since he was snoring within a couple
was out like a light, didn't feel any of the treatments
and slipped from sleep into unconsciousness, and finally
back to sleep while he was transported into the air
conditioned medical tent.
slept like a log for ten hours, without even waking
once, until early evening. When he woke he was alone
in the tent, none of the other beds were occupied and
no noise except for the hum of the air con. It took
him a moment to orient himself, before he noticed the
deep throb in his wrist and remembered what had happened,
and that, in fact, he was alive and so were all the
others, as far as he could tell. Pulling the thin sheet
away and glancing down at himself, he realised he was
no longer dirty, except for a bright red iodine covered
leg, but neither dressed, except for a pair of shorts
that were clearly not his own. Making some noise while
sitting up, there was a rustle close to the entrance
and a nurse appeared.
gave him water, checked on all the vital signs, but
Dan was growing restless and hungry. Food was brought
soon, which he wolfed down while his hand was checked
over yet again. Got the most important information first
of all: all three of the American crew were alive, as
far as the Brits knew, then listened half-heartedly
to a lecture about the painkillers he was to take, his
bruises and how he was to deal with them, and the need
for this and that and the other, before the inevitable
happened: he got summoned to a briefing, or rather,
the whole hog appeared in the tent, including the CO.
sighed, gave into the inevitable, and told them all
that had happened, while being perfectly aware that
he'd have to do it again for the Yanks - again and again
and again. When they were satisfied for the time being,
it had gone pitch dark outside. Dan wanted to get away
from medical supervision, needed some time on his own
until the next morning, he argued, and he had some personal
things to do. Glad when the doc signed him off as fit
to take care of himself, after yet another lecture about
plaster casts, bruises, possible mild concussion, and
goodness what. And, of course, the strict order not
to drink any alcohol for at least a couple of weeks.
was muttering to himself when he stood outside at last,
dressed in a pair of his own shorts they'd brought him,
with t-shirt and flip-flops, and the ubiquitous shades.
He pushed them back over his eyes, standing around,
aimlessly. The 'personal business' had been a lie, except
for the very important business of organising a bottle
or two of moonshine. Doctor's orders, he claimed when
he cajoled some of his mates into producing the booze
for him, diligently omitting the 'against'.
in a bag, slung over his good shoulder, Dan got himself
into his parka against the cold of the night, and kept
standing. Dithering. Wondering. Where had the hatred
gone to, just dissipated? And where was the pain?
doctor had checked Vadim over only briefly, low priority,
and he wasn't wounded, had only caught a bit too much
sun, and that was it. A shower, dressed to be debriefed,
told his story a few times, had the feeling he was only
confirming Dan's and Jean's story, then was allowed
to go. Stripped again, and lay down, to sleep, lay restless
though for a long time. Dan. Dan close. Dan laughing.
Dan. He couldn't be angry at Jean, not right now, all
he felt was a mild astonishment and regret that things
had come this far. Mulling over his decision to flank
instead of letting Jean do that. He'd been far too willing
to leave Dan, hadn't made a stand to get him out and
instead went off alone. It had been the right thing,
tactically, but he wondered what Dan would think about
then, Dan spent time with Jean, and not with him, so
the priorities were set. Vadim groaned, shook his head
at the thought. Dan and Jean - that image was enough
to be painful. He should be glad Dan was alive, and
instead replayed the whole mission in his head, over
and over again, questioning every word, every decision,
until he wasn't sure what had been right and what had
been wrong and he doubted everything. He couldn't sleep.
stood up, groaning, dressed again, didn't want to be
caught out in anything but with gear and knife, then
stepped outside to breathe air, and feel the space around
him. No cell.
looked up when he heard the noise of a door opening,
and a smile ghosted across his face. Of course, who
else. How fitting. He couldn't tell how long he had
been standing in the dark, unwilling to knock on anyone's
hut, unable to bear company in the Mess, and not wanting
to be on his own. "Hey, Russkie." He called
turned at the words and saw Dan, who stood there, stiffness
betraying the pain. He came closer, gave Dan a nod and
a smile. "Couldn't sleep. What about you? Smoking?"
that and drinking. Doctor's orders." Dan shrugged
lopsidedly, glancing around. "Just don't feel like
being scooped up. Do you
" stalled, didn't
know what to say nor even what he wanted, "do you
know a place to booze in peace?"
grinned and nodded upwards. "Up on the roof there.
Good view up there, and no patrol comes looking. Too
lazy." He paused, hesitant for a moment. Thought,
against his will, that Jean was probably right. Being
nice. Talking. Flirting. Well, maybe start with the
second part of that. He'd been relatively nice, he felt.
Saving somebody's life was damn nice. "Care for
be, too, what the doctor ordered." Dan grinned,
held out the bag with the bottles. "Vodka and whisky.
Cheap crap, but beggars can't be choosers."
like we have a party on our hands", murmured Vadim
and took the bag to help Dan carry.
was favouring the right side while walking, every bone
in his body ached and every muscle sore. Glancing up
at the ladder he sighed and muttered a few obscenities,
getting up there was going to be fun. "You'd think
they have elevators for scruffy old veterans."
up there. We're strictly not supposed to be there."
Vadim climbed the ladder after Dan, who took his time,
clearly hurting, but Vadim couldn't help looking at
the ass and legs in front of him and felt a stab of
desire, expected, but nonetheless painful.
settled on the roof and put the bottles down. They'd
been right - it was a good view, and a peaceful place.
He should have come here earlier. "Dan
thing. I made a tactical decision today. It was
about tactics, and nothing else."
do you mean?" Dan was groaning as he shuffled to
sit in a position that was at least half-way comfortable.
you behind. I knew Jean would get you out, so I
just decided to flank them before they had properly
locked onto their targets." Vadim shook his head.
"I had not much time."
that worries you?" Beneath the shades, Dan's eyes
were wide with surprise. Dark pools in even greater
hadn't noticed. It was a team effort, it wasn't your
specific job to take care of me. Don't need a nanny.
What we needed instead was for someone to eliminate
the vipers, and that's what you did."
I didn't want you to think
" I don't care
about you. I would have risked your life. "Anything
tilted his head, studying the other while clamping the
whisky bottle between his knees, to open it one-handed.
"In fact, I've never seen you operate in the field
except once, the Mujas. It was a first today."
shook his head. "Strange, isn't it? You know me
so well, but you only watched me kill twice. First time,
I wasn't very professional about it." That seemed
the wrong thing to say and Vadim ploughed on. "It's
better that way. I did a lot of bad things. Not much
I'm proud of."
but first of, anyone in our jobs has done a lot of shit
and secondly, that's the past. You'd long changed before
they took you." Dan handed the vodka bottle to
Vadim before taking a long draught from his cheap whisky.
He coughed at the harsh burn, before he could continue.
"There were quite a few things to be proud of,
back then." Wiping his face with his hand, before
gazing into the darkness.
nodded. He'd exorcised the soldier, only to have to
change back into him in order to survive. Proud. Proud
of hotel rooms and waiting for Dan. Proud of living
almost like husband and wife, making plans for the future.
Settling in and calming down. He opened the vodka and
took several deep, deep swallows, followed the burn
down his throat to his stomach.
remember everything, you know." Dan said quietly.
cleared his throat. "Yes. Not easy
to forget." At a loss for words and thought, just
the strong wave of guilt that washed over him. His fault.
A waste of time, effort, a waste of breath, and two
years. Over two years that had made them strangers.
"It went all wrong. Not what I wanted."
do you mean?" Dan was staring at the blue-wrapped
plaster cast on his left wrist, before taking the shades
off his eyes and putting them on the floor beside him.
Looking at Vadim without any barrier. "The last
two and a half years, or the shit you pulled the last
Vadim looked at the bottle and took another deep swallow.
He wasn't used to the alcohol anymore. A whole bottle
of this would make him very drunk, and hopefully very
tired. "I don't understand how it happened. It
doesn't make any sense."
happened in prison to you, or what happened when you
went into madman mode?" Dan felt like dragging
each word out of Vadim, as if he had to extract a splinter
from a puss filled wound. Putting the bottle to his
lips, the liquor was working just fine as pain killer.
Inside and out. "It's a good question, actually."
Taking a breath, "I haven't got a fucking clue
what's going on inside you, what happened to you, and
who the hell you are now." Wiping his lips, he
leaned back against the low wall behind him, "And
I guess you haven't got a clue what happened to me either."
Strangers. After eleven years.
don't know myself. Things going on in me
no sense to me. Or anybody else, I guess." Vadim
pressed his lips together, fought the despair, that
darkness that threatened to well up and blind and deafen
him to the world. "You, I recognize. Different,
but still you. You seem
happier? More relaxed?
You had that during the last
months. When you
were working for the embassy. Same
light in your
eyes." Same cocksure easy confidence, same easy
shook his head. "Not the same, not at all."
Taking another mouthful, the whisky was doing its job
of dulling his senses. "It's like having been taken
apart and put back together again." He petered
off, once again looking out into the distance, before
he started anew after long moments of silence.
you left in Finland, there was nothing." Dan talked
slowly, carefully moving from word to word, like a rock
climber, trying to find the right path. "Absolutely
nothing, after two years of fighting, and I had no idea
anymore how to go on. That's why I came here."
closed his eyes and remembered his own
The inability to feel, the sense of strangeness, like
nothing was real, there was nothing left to feel, nothing
left to remember, all used up for simply staying alive
and remotely sane.
took a deep breath, swollen fingers of his left hand
fluttering on the fabric of his camo trousers. "Over
the years, you had become my home, my sanity, perhaps
even my life." He lowered his head, almost immediately
jerked it back up. "While you were in prison I
could at least fight for your life, all the time keeping
up hope. Until it was too late." Dan shook his
head once, violently, as if trying to get rid of a memory.
"It was Maggie who had the bottle to tell me about
your sentence, the execution. And yet, even then, there
was still something to do. I had to tell you that I
was alive, going on living, like I had promised. I needed
you to know I hadn't given up on you." Dan huffed
dryly, "Useless, hopeless, but fuck, I had to try
and tell you that I love you, even if all that remained
in the end was nothing but death." He scrunched
his eyes shut. No matter how much more whisky he'd drink,
he'd never forget the smell and sight and sound of the
room where he had waited for Vadim's execution. The
tick-tock of the clock, every second moving closer to
finality. And then, silence. Inside. Hurt and pain and
grief so large and overpowering, he'd thought he would
useless." Vadim struggled for breath. "My
I fucked it up. Fucked you up. I didn't
mean to, but I had
nothing left. I'm sorry."
Choked very nearly on the last word.
Vadim, I guess when you left
it wasn't your fault,
even though I can't understand it. But I knew
Dan's voice lowered, before taking another mouthful
of the harsh liquor, "I knew when I saw you in
Finland that you weren't the man who I'd last seen in
Kabul." His fingers moved up and down the bottle,
stalled at its neck. "Maggie had tried to warn
me, had given me articles, reports, all sorts of stuff
from Amnesty International and other places, trying
to get me to understand what the KGB had probably done
to you. But I couldn't understand, couldn't believe.
I still don't." He turned his head to look away.
tried. I failed." Dan looked back at Vadim, adding
quietly, sincerely. "I don't understand what happened
to you, why you did that shit with my mates, and why
you tried to get me to kill you
" he shook
his head. "I'm sorry."
Vadim thought. He was as guilty as sin. Of cowardice,
of weakness, of all the things the KGB officer had said.
Predatory instincts, exploitation, cruelty, a nature
so base, twisted and defiled he was beyond redemption.
If there was any redemption, and that was the one small
victory, Katya guarded it. Two things in his life he'd
he wished he could just have died for Dan somewhere
on the way here. It would have saved him so much pain,
both of them, and Dan would have never seen just how
weak and pathetic he was. Blood and guts. Just flesh.
Just a creature scrambling around on earth with no higher
purpose, no destiny, stomped on by blind chance. He
lowered his head, vodka blunting the thoughts, and luring
out the darkness.
want to know, just ask." He didn't want
to speak about it, nothing of it, it would be cutting
bandages that kept the wounds closed.
not yet." Dan shook his head, drawing in
a deep breath. He needed to try and make Vadim understand.
Just as much as he still needed to understand himself.
"I need you to understand, Vadim. To truly understand
what you mean to me. You had been everything, Vadim.
You'd been the reason I told the Army to fuck off, just
to get back to Kabul. You'd been everything I fought
for when you were imprisoned. You'd been the force behind
everything I did during those two years. I loved you,
but when you returned only to leave
stalled, desperately trying to find the right words.
"Everything shattered. Everything I was, felt,
wanted was gone. I was empty. There was nothing left
inside of me. There was nothing left."
Vadim was struggling with it, but the thought
was clear and sharp. It meant Dan had been just as broken
as he'd been after the prison. Two years, a different
kind of torture. A life taken, a world reduced to rubble
and pain. Past Tense. Past Perfect. It was over. But
at the same time, Dan was sitting there, right there
with him, and talking. "Why
why don't you
" love me anymore, he wanted to say, but
felt the word and the thought caught in his mind.
don't I what?" Dan glanced up, the haphazard
fringe of his unruly hair was shielding his eyes. "Why
don't I go back to where we were before all this shit
happened?" He shook his head softly, while clinging
to the whisky bottle. "I can't do it again. If
I touched you, I will be back to square one - and if
you left me once more
I couldn't stand it. I
laughed dryly, softly. A sound of dead leaves and harboured
hopes. "I'm fucking frightened to touch you, Vadim.
That's why I've been avoiding you, not because I don't
want you. Shit, you have no idea how much I do
want you. Always have, always will." Shaking his
head once more. Forlorn, with wry amusement and too
many brittle truths.
if I said I didn't love you, I'd lie, as much as if
I said I didn't want you. I'm not a liar, so I won't
tell you that I don't want you and that I don't love
" Dan drew in another breath, "but
it's not that easy anymore. You've done so much shit.
Up close and personal. I can't ignore it."
and guts, Vadim thought. In the end, it all came down
to that. Unbearable to look at Dan cutting himself open
like this, unbearable to think that he had made him
suffer like this. Enough that Dan could feel that hurting
himself more could bring relief.
jaw muscles twitched, and he looked out into the night
of a country that he had no idea about, would never
understand, just like he had never understood Afghanistan.
beauty of destruction, the basics of life. You suffer,
you bleed, you die.
want to imagine what it meant for Dan, all that time,
but then, yes, he knew about waiting. Knew about hoping,
and knew about the moment when hope had run out. He
wanted to speak about it, and then didn't. Dan was the
one that was bleeding. Driving the knife home with the
things he held inside, gutting him even more was wrong.
He wanted to block, hold that hand, wanted to pull the
knife away, wanted Dan to stop pushing it deeper, not
because of what it did to him, but because of what it
did to Dan.
what Dan said. I love you. I love you. I love
you. I want you. I want to touch you. He'd been
reduced to wanting, accepting that the feelings were
gone. Accepting that the little boy soldier, fucking
stupid Yank that sounded like he had been harvesting
corn in Iowa just last summer, was easier, younger,
and not a coward. He'd read something, somewhere. That
the difference between courage and cowardice was experience.
lowered his head, felt his neck tense in this position,
stared at the mouth of the bottle. Never a way out.
Too much of him. He couldn't fit into a bottle. Seducing
him in Kabul had been easy, well, easier than this.
Just show him how good it could feel, let him come to
his own conclusions. This time, Dan had known what it
felt like, and decided against it. But was it a decision?
Krasnorada, he heard the doctor, you must be
aware that since your treatment, you are prone to misunderstand
- misinterpret. Human interaction will always be tinged
with mistrust, fear, caution, and the feeling of emotional
numbing. But that doesn't mean you can't function.
backtracked, went through Dan's words again. Love, want.
Those two were easy enough. But. That one was difficult.
"No, it's not easy anymore."
not easy." Dan murmured, yet deep inside it was
as goddamned easy as reaching out and taking hold, to
never let go again. But he'd been too broken, scattered,
he couldn't go through it once more. The bottle went
to Dan's lips, eyes shut, and he gulped down a quarter
of it. Wiped his lips, catching a drop that had spilled
down his chin. Shifting position to look at Vadim. Really
looked. His quiet voice carried all of the intensity
it ever could.
I touched you now, would you never leave me again?"
was so much hope in his voice and his words, it hurt
swallowed, felt his throat too tight to move, then,
still staring at the bottle, smelling the desert and
Dan, and himself, his hand reached to his side, opened
the holster of the pistol. British issue, the exact
same kind that Dan carried. Merc now even by choice
out the mag, took the bullet from the chamber, clicked
the mag in place again, rolled the bullet between his
fingers. Nothing special about it, apart from where
it had been, and where it could go. Brass and charge.
Physics of killing. He looked at Dan, sideways, saw
the man stare at him, all eyes, dark eyes, and the way
the pale desert moon made his face a place of shadows.
reached for Dan's hand, opened the fingers and placed
the bullet into the palm. "I mean this." Then
thought Dan wouldn't get it. Wrestled with the words
in English, but he was never sure he said what he wanted
to say, anyway. "This is the bullet you'll use
to kill me if I walk away again." Because if I
walk away again, I'll be in so much pain I'm better
off dead anyway.
looked at his palm, the bullet, but did not close his
you ever hate me, Vadim?" His voice carefully devoid
of emotions. "If you do, tell me. Because if you
ever hated me, because of the things that happened to
you, I'd rather you use that bullet on myself."
Added, "Right now." He wanted to close his
hand so badly, warm the bullet on his palm and never
let go. "I just need to know."
you? Vadim's eyes narrowed. Oh, Dan. He wanted to hit
that hand, make the bullet spin away into the darkness,
never find its target, one bullet in this war - any
war - that wouldn't kill. Dan had been the water and
the food and the boots to get him through there. It
was only that he had used him up, the memories, had
needed to feed off them, use them to stay himself. Hating
water was absurd.
never hated you. I don't think I hated you up there
in the mountains, when I had plenty more reason. I was
scared of you, yes, but all those years? I didn't hate
you. Not like you hated me."
smiled, thought about sipping from the vodka, but didn't.
"The things that happened to me?"
beatings, the insanity of being alone, the scorn, the
humiliation, the accusations, the way they had torn
his mind apart, trampled on everything.
decision. I got Katya to leave. I stayed in Afghanistan.
I decided to live like I did. Am. There is no space
for men like me. I'm an error. I'm not supposed to happen.
And I'm not supposed to get away with it for so long.
I'm not supposed to not cringe and hide for what I am.
The Soviet Union had no place for me. The Soviet Army
" Vadim shook his head. "Things happen,
but they are invisible, especially if you are an officer,
especially in my
former position. Nobody raised
a voice. Officers got away with murder"
shook his head once more, stared at his hands. "Some
men want to win a gold medal, some want a family, some
want to be rich, some want to be free, some want to
kill other men, and some men want to do the right thing.
Me, I only want you."
closed his hand. Felt the metal warming to his touch.
He cocked his head a fraction, studied the face he'd
known for many years. Aging, just like his, and aging
well. Vadim wore the years like a trophy, despite what
they had done to him.
smiled, looked down, left the bottle standing beside
him, then just looked at Vadim for a long while, before
slowly sliding his hand onto Vadim's thigh. Touching.
Firm warmth beneath the cloth, as familiar as the bullet
in his hand.
fucked up men." Dan murmured, "I haven't given
up on them, yet."
me, Vadim thought, amazed at how sane that thought felt.
It wasn't. Death scared him. Just couldn't get why he
wanted Dan to kill him, if he had to die. Maybe that
would make it less random, give it some meaning, but
the thought was so utterly wrong it gave him goosebumps.
Why the fuck, why?
he ever wanted. Dan was death, and life, and water,
and emotion. Battling that emotion, mourning, sadness.
Love could hurt like a motherfucker, he thought, because
that was it, just human, unlikely, impossible, a kind
of love that defeated him at every corner, every turn.
Relief. Not given up.
you haven't given up. Not all the time. You kept me
alive inside you. I
failed in that. You
died in my mind, in my heart, when they kept me locked
in with just myself", Vadim murmured, staring at
the ground. Impossible to say this in Russian, it meant
too fucking much, and he hated the melody of Russian.
Russian was 'their' language, not his. For operational
reasons, yes, but never again to speak feelings. "I
took what I had of you with me in there. I did. They
told me you were dead, so it was mourning."
fingers moved slowly along the stretched cloth of Vadim's
trousers. His whole attention fixed on the other. Nothing
else, no bottle, no aching body, no world existed except
Vadim. A Vadim he could not understand, who had gone
through things he was unable to comprehend. A transformation
so deep, it had rearranged every molecule. "Did
you believe it?" Murmured, his dark eyes almost
black in the dim light.
touch on his thigh nearly made Vadim jump. There was
always a promise in that touch, it was always close
enough to grab his attention. The muscle tensed, mostly
to acknowledge the touch had registered. "At first
but then I was
losing my mind.
I was losing
myself. Somewhere then I
you receive the message?"
My father relayed it. That made
nodded, but did not smile. A price he'd paid, high stakes,
but now he knew it had been worth it. "I didn't
know if it would make things worse, but I had to try
it. You had to know." His fingers curled into a
loose fist on Vadim's thigh. Murmured softly, tinged
with regret. "Seems I know Jack Shit."
wanted nothing more than to cover that hand with his
and keep it there. Inched closer just a little, and
felt tired, heavy, and weak, like the conversation was
draining the blood from him. No, the strength, and the
poison, and the darkness, even though touching the darkness
was always dangerous. He lowered his head, bent the
neck, swallowing hard. Throat too tight to swallow,
fuck it. Leaning his head against Dan's shoulder, asking
for strength and support and touch. Dan wouldn't touch
him, not like in the old days, he knew that and it hurt,
but maybe Dan allowed this.
hand came up, instantly, into the back of Vadim's neck.
Left it there. A steady, warm, calloused presence. Tilting
his head a fraction, until his cheek touched the short-shorn
hair. Waiting. Patience.
wrestled with his thoughts, everything racing, things
he wanted to say and would never find the words for.
I took you with me, but you ran out. I fed on it, and
it kept me alive.
point, only I was left."
happened. At some point, I was truly alone. Cold turkey.
Worse. Alone with his own darkness, the things he'd
done, the things he was. The crimes, and the baseness
of his own nature, baser than the vomit and excrement.
You were gone, used up.
a dog eating its own legs. Twisted dark mirror."
was alone with myself, and I looked at myself, and I
hated what I saw, thought Vadim, with utter clarity.
voice a rumbling, low ghost. "You said once that
were are not a good man, but that you got by. I understood
it then, and I still do now." Tiny movements of
Dan's head, minute friction, while his hand remained
a stable presence in Vadim's neck. "It does not
matter what you did, nor when you broke, and neither
why. The things you wanted, the greed - that's been
and gone. Done and buried. You're here. You've paid
the highest price. Yourself." He wasn't fully certain
what the words meant, just that they somehow made sense.
Craning his neck, his lips touching shaved hair.
strange sound came from Vadim's throat at that touch.
He pressed his eyes shut to not fucking start crying
with relief and truth and gratitude. The gratitude was
the worst, for Dan kissing him, like a brother maybe,
like family, like he cared and meant it. He wasn't forgiven,
he didn't think Dan could or would, but Dan accepted
fought the crying, couldn't just break down now, no
fucking hysterical mess. He should want and need and
screw their brains out, make amends, show what he felt.
The thoughts of making Dan pay that he had harboured
the last weeks, just gone, wiped away, petty ego bullshit.
Forced himself to breathe steady, force the screaming
and crying down, he'd do nothing like this. Nothing.
wanted to be strong for you and for myself, and I wasn't.
swallowed hard, throat still too tight to swallow, fuck
it. He fought the tears again, it felt like his head
and chest were filled with acid.
didn't matter. Didn't matter he had been broken, or
why, or when, or how.
didn't despise him for being such a coward. So weak
that he collapsed at the true extend of what he was.
How he suddenly realized what he had done - relished
- was wrong. 'Following orders' didn't even cover it.
And all the other faults, the creature inside that was
just greedy to live, would bargain anything away, everything.
The creature that 'they' had fed, only to kick it, later,
when they were finished with him. He wanted that fucker's
head, the man who had interrogated him. He wanted to
chew the flesh from Konstantinov's severed and shattered
skull, wanted to destroy him in ways that nobody had
ever destroyed anybody. Now, that would definitely kill
him. He couldn't get anywhere near Russia without trouble.
finally managed to get his breath under control, somehow
managed to breathe that choking tightness away, then
felt how his body relaxed, because it couldn't hold
the tension anymore. Not twenty anymore. Not even thirty.
bullet's a promise and I take it as such." Dan
raised his head, sure that he had his features back
under control - enough control to fake strength, that
impassive, stoic face that was natural. Turned away
a little, checking their surroundings, another part
of the second nature. A sniper could finish them both
with one bullet. Impossible to shed that idea. Inhaled.
"A promise", he echoed. "You could have
my name engraved, you know?" Tried a smile.
don't need your name on it." Dan lifted his head
to the same level. "I know what it says."
Crooked smile in a scarred face, but he offered no further
explanation. The bullet a promise. Real and final. Dan's
hand was slowly sliding from Vadim's neck down his shoulder.
felt like a caress. For all intents and purposes, it
was a caress. Brotherly? Prone to misunderstanding.
Vadim couldn't risk it, felt too raw inside, and just
couldn't beg for it, couldn't ask Dan to touch him,
please. Comrades. Comrades that had exchanged a bullet.
know what it says.
was that? Vadim had no answer, and thinking about it
hurt with longing and tenderness and that darkness that
was like acid on his brain.
smiled. "You have a choice to make now. Either
get pissed to oblivion and fall asleep on the roof,
or get pissed to no more than half-way oblivion and
climb down and allow my aging, fucked-up, battered body
to sleep on my mattress."
get cold in the desert", Vadim murmured. "Let's
" Yeah, let's. What. "Rest, You
are injured, you need rest."
hand left Vadim's thigh, taking the bottle instead.
"It'll be for the best." What, for your body,
your mind, your heart, or what, Dan? He raised the bottle
and drowned out any warring thoughts by downing several
gulps of the cheap liquid. Feeling it burn down his
throat and pooling in his stomach, soon to poison his
blood and turn his brain into a fuzzy plain.
me down, aye?" He dropped the bottle, almost empty.
The pain in his body no more than a dull ache, thanks
to the booze. Whatever he felt in his heart
be dealing with that later.
yes." Too easy to say "aye" when Dan
said it. Infectious, a stupid little linguistic habit
that would be embarrassing and wrong now, like he was
trying too hard to conform, to endear himself. He couldn't
go further than he had. He stood, offering Dan a hand,
far less drunk than Dan was, but Vadim thought to remedy
that once he was back in his hut.
grip as strong as it had ever been, despite the ordeal.
"You could do with some sleep, too."
To sleep, to sleep, perchance to scream. "I think
I'm about ready for some shut-eye."
that case, take me down, dog-soldier." Dan grinned,
unsteady on his feet, especially when favouring the
grinned, steadied Dan on the way to the ladder, then
went first, pulling the other after him, again holding
Dan steady like he was a casualty that was still walking
under his own steam, but only barely.
walked Dan to the tin hut and opened the lock and door
for him, then gave a smile. "It was a good evening,
Dan. The afternoon was shit, but the evening was one
of the better ones I've had." He smiled, didn't
feel the irony, but thought he should say something.
Something 'nice'. Fuck the deserter. "Just
let me know if you want to talk
or not talk.
I mean sit there, not talking."
He shrugged, felt stupid, and hoped Dan, who was starting
to grin at him like a boozed-up loony, was too drunk
to notice. "Good night."
went back to his hut when Dan had crashed in his own,
where Vadim finished the vodka, which made him sleep.