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Special Forces Chapter XXI: Judgement Day
 
 

1990 - Finland, 24th December. Christmas Eve

The phone call had come in the small hours of the morning. "Be at the gas station in Vaalimaa tonight", the Baroness had said, 'he'll be there'.

He. Dan hadn't asked any questions.

He would go anywhere to meet Vadim, no matter where. Back into hell or across the frozen Afghan mountains on his own. Or just to the Finnish border. As long as he'd be there.

Alive.

Almost two years. Twenty-two months and five days since their last night in Kabul, six-hundred-and-eighty-four days since Vadim had been taken, and he had nothing but memories and a string of lapis lazuli beads.

Dan had arrived at the UK embassy in Helsinki four days previously, and expected to stake out for longer, when the call had come from Dubai with the reassurance she would board a plane immediately and was on her way.

2100 hrs, and Dan was standing in the freezing cold, waiting. They had warned him not to move away from the car and to stay still until the prisoner had crossed the open space. Temperature far too many degrees minus, almost worse than the Afghan mountains. Wrapped in thick clothing, he climbed out of the car the moment the second vehicle arrived, while the Baroness remained inside, and so did the driver. He stood, together with a couple of agents a few steps away, who had come in a third car, parked further away. Body shivering in the cold, but he felt none of it. Nothing mattered but his eyes straining to see in the darkness, following the moving shadow.

A man. One man. Only ever the one.

* * *

The car stopped. Outside, darkness - and electric light of a gas station. A truck idled there. Vadim saw the driver's breath mist. Surrounding it, forest. They'd driven past icy lakes. Vadim knew the landscape from a tactical exercise.

Another car stood there, lights pointing in their direction. People in heavy coats. Waiting for something. Vadim felt a sudden tension and it didn't leave him. The car seemed an extension of the cell. A place that was safe. Outside only darkness. And light he didn't know how to deal with.

"Get out already", huffed the driver, and Vadim opened the door. He swung his feet into the ankle deep snow, then straightened. Closed the door at the next sharp command.

Lost.

He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his coat - army issue, ironically, if he could still feel irony. He stood there, unsure what it all meant. Not an execution. Or was it? One of his victims demanding payback? That was alright, he figured.

The other car still stood there, and he forced himself to walk towards it and whatever it meant.

Fifty yards, maybe fifty-five. Open, unprotected space. A million places for a sniper all around. Vadim expected to feel the impact of a bullet, every step took him into a kill zone, and he pulled his head deeper between his shoulders and simply expected the bullet to hit. Expecting was better than the fear.

Walked in the beam of the other car's headlights. Seeing almost nothing.

Vadim moved on, step after step, listening to the too loud sound of snow, keeping his eyes lowered, but moved towards the car. He felt nothing. No expectation, no true fear, the only thing that was real was the cold surrounding him and biting into his face and ears. He didn't wear an ushanka.

They'd brought him through Leningrad, Vyborg, past Lake Ladoga. This was Finland. Or the border of it. Winter War. A tactical disaster. Nothing of that mattered - echoes of something he'd known as a child.

Thirty yards. Vadim looked over his shoulders, but no car window was open, nothing pointing at him. He turned back to face the other car. Moving through the snow was hard work - virgin snow, reaching to his knees in places. He swerved to the side to get out of the light and move to the driver's side.

Six yards away. He stopped, looking at the car.

"Vadim?" Dan's voice almost broke, unsure if it even carried through the freezing night. His hands at his side, clenched into fists, he could not move, nor think, not even feel. The knot in his stomach as frozen as his twisted guts. Twenty-two months and five days. Pain, fear, emptiness, hatred and numbness, hope and loss, bribery and hope once more. Almost two years, and Dan barely dared to try and picture the other's face, as it moved back into the shadows.

Vadim looked up, seeking, for a moment, then saw the tall figure - looking at him. Dan. Dan McFadyen, SAS, lover, enemy, everything. Remembered, but only with his mind, and faint, like aged photographs, emotions. Looked at the man and knew he'd loved him and knew every hair, every inflection of the voice, remembered sex and pledges and vows … and thought that there had to be something, an echo, a deeper, more profound memory, something deep and powerful and overwhelming, but there wasn't.

He knew the man, but he felt nothing. Cauterized.

"Yes", he said and kept looking at that face, the dark eyes, long lashes, strong features, and thought he looked better than he remembered, but still, there was nothing but a faint wistfulness.

"Vadim …" Dan could do nothing but repeat the name, finally able to move out of his frozen stance. Not the cold that had made it impossible to move, but the … what. Uncertainty? Fear, yes, fear that it was all a dream and that in the end, after almost two years, they had killed Vadim after all.

But he saw the features at last, could make out every line and angle in that face. Vadim's head shaved, his face stubbly, looking gaunt. Drawn, haggard, and far too thin, the weight loss even visible through the thick greatcoat. Like a survivor, one of them. One of the few prisoners of war who'd made it out of the Japanese camps.

Memories flooding back to him when he saw the too-pale face, an onslaught of emotions, and he smiled at last, the sheer overwhelming burst of feelings bubbling up from deep inside, like a geyser, ready to burst. "Vadim." Holding his hand out to the other, beckoning, he knew they were watching and he did not dare to take a step towards him.

Dan's voice finally broke completely, "Oh fuck, Vadim!"

Vadim glanced over his shoulder, but nothing moved in the other car. He heard the machine start up again. They were ready to leave. No joke, no trick. Or was it? He paused again, then moved towards Dan, knew the man would cover him if anything happened. Noticed the hand, wasn't sure what to do with it, but moved closer, then again looked at the other car as it slowly moved across the snow to turn, the tyres crunching the frost glazed snow. Then the lights were gone, and it was just this car, and the gas station. And it was very cold.

"That … is it?" said Vadim, still not comprehending.

Dan kept his hand where it was, for a while longer, then dropped the arm, untaken. Moving the last step forward, after a glance at the agents who had been hovering at the fringes and who nodded. "You are free." It wasn't enough, though, Dan had to say the name again, and again. As if giving voice to the name would make it all true, and would anchor everything in reality. "Free, Vadim." His arms raised to embrace the other. "At last, Vadim, at last."

Vadim nodded, glanced again over his shoulder, then back into the face that was suddenly close. He stood still, felt the embrace that tightened, and raised his arms to close them around the other's back, greeting him like friends or family. Human. Touch. Felt suddenly too much, too close, far closer than anybody had been in a long while, and he felt his heart pound at the hug. He closed his eyes, but that was worse, so he stared at the price sign of the gas station, couldn't make out the numbers, but could read Markka. Finmark.

"Dan. Good … seeing you." It was. A sense of relief, but almost too much. Claustrophobic, couldn't cope with that emotion anymore. Didn't know what to say. "All … all way from Kabul?"

Dan didn't let go, couldn't read the signs of the stiff and unmovable body in his arms. Too long, too much, and he couldn't let go. Not now, not anymore, not ever. Looking up, he smiled into Vadim's face, breath misting between them. "No, I have been in Dubai since the middle of last year." So much time, so much lost.

"Dubai." Saudi Arabia. They'd have to fly there. Another long way, but at least not Kabul.

"We are staying at the embassy in Helsinki, only a short ride away." Dan tried to kiss Vadim, but somehow, something stopped him the very last moment. Didn't dare to and couldn't explain why. So fragile. Vadim, alive. So fragile.

Vadim exhaled, knew he should want to kiss, but he didn't feel a thing, none of the movements meant anything, no touch, no word, it all rang hollow and unreal.

"Come into the car, it is fucking freezing." Dan was still smiling, couldn't stop it.

"Yes. Cold. It's … Finland. Not … good place." Vadim clung to English, didn't want to speak Russian, but the other language was unwieldy and soulless. Dan opened the door for him and he got in, could smell smoke in here. Dan was a smoker. "Sorry, I'm just tired."

"It's OK. No problem, Vadim." Again the name, Dan could not get enough of it.

The driver had stayed in the car, and so had the grey haired lady, who was turning in her seat when Vadim got into the back, with Dan sliding into the warmth beside him.

Baroness de Vilde smiled, holding out her hand. "Major Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada," emphasis on his rank, as if they had never stripped it off him, "I am honoured to meet again the man that Dan loves."

There was a reaction now, a moment of fear, intense and flashing across Vadim's brain. Power. The kind of power that could destroy people. Remembered old fear, embarrassment, humiliation, and didn't understand why she offered her hand. He felt trapped, then felt his muscles relax. No power. No resistance. No struggle. He had no chance to fight. "I … am honoured, Ma'm." Took her hand like it was a thing of spikes and poison, forced himself to hold it and lowered his gaze.

Honour? You pride yourself on honour? And isn't that the greatest of your delusions?

The Baroness shook Vadim's hand, but something crossed her face like a flash, unseen by Dan. She let go of the large hand quickly, as soon as politeness decreed possible. "I would like you to meet a few people who have helped to ensure your freedom." She smiled, "Of course, no one has done more towards your release than Dan, but I believe that goes without saying." She nodded to the driver, who began to move the vehicle. The chains on the tyres gripping fresh snow, as he carefully turned around.

"Not true," Dan interrupted, "without the ambassador's help, anything I did would have ended up in nothing." He placed a hand onto Vadim's arm. Just resting, connecting. "Thank you, Ma'm." Dan smiled and she merely nodded with a smile of her own.

Vadim could only nod. Too much. Too much information, and too close, the car crammed full of people and each single one enough to restrict his breath.

That was when Dan suddenly remembered, "Are you hungry? Or thirsty? I am sorry, Vadim, I keep forgetting the most profound things. I'm just so bloody overwhelmed. We have some food here, though, and a flask with tea and one with coffee. Oh, and some water." He couldn't take his eyes off the other, though, not even when he peeled his hands out of his gloves or took the hood from his head, pulling the hat off, and shaking his dark hair, longer and wilder than ever.

Tea. Coffee. Water. Three choices. And Vadim didn't even know whether he was actually thirsty. Tea. Snow outside and tea worked. "I …" Looking around, saw their eyes on him like they expected him to do something, say something, eyes strangely hungry and demanding and oppressive. Relax. You have no power whatsoever.

I am calling the shots. All you have to do is listen to me and take in what I tell you, and answer my questions.

Vadim swallowed. "Tea, please. Not hungry … don't think so, no." Looked at her first, as if she would give an order, then at Dan. Knew something was wrong, despite the lack inside, the hollow place behind his brow and inside his chest, and his guts felt frozen and brittle with dread.

"Tea, of course." Dan almost spilled the hot liquid over his hands when he tried to fill the cup. Didn't know why his hands were trembling, nor why his focus was shot to shit. "There you go." Staring at Vadim while handing the flask's cup.

"Thanks." Vadim took it, carefully, and balanced it on his knee. He changed the grip and lifted it, sipping the hot tea, hoped that would help, but the sip of tea was like a stone in his guts.

Dan couldn't take his eyes of Vadim, watching him drink. Couldn't believe this was true. Vadim was alive, yet the truth was that he sat right there, next to him. "Can I touch you?" Suddenly, murmured. Didn't know why the hell he'd even asked and hadn't just done it, but the other felt like a stranger.

Vadim looked up. Maybe that would break the spell. Maybe it wouldn't. Too close. But not his decision. Had the feeling he owed that, had no right to resist because Dan had every right to. Looked at the lady who had turned back to face the windscreen and the night, busying herself. What would she think? What was she thinking? It was important, somehow, to know that. He looked at Dan. "Sure."

Dan raised his hand, only his fingertips touching Vadim's face, stroking gently along the somewhat stubbly cheek and jaw. His fingers were cool, he had only started to warm up. "You lost weight, Vadim."

Vadim resisted the notion to take the hand and hold it - so it didn't touch him. It felt awkward and odd and claustrophobic. Couldn't read the words. Did that mean he looked bad? Ill? Did Dan criticise? He just couldn't read it, not the tone, not the touch.

Dan murmured as he smiled, "But you're real."

I don't feel real. I feel nothing. Vadim looked at Dan, and wanted to get out of the car, wanted to move, but knew he had to endure the feeling of being trapped. He glanced at the ambassador for any sign of displeasure. "Yes, it's … me." And who am I? What's left of me. "And … you. Your hair is long."

Dan's hand moved along the jaw, coming to rest on Vadim's shoulder. A minute twitch of his eyes, feeling something … something wrong. Something … he refused to feel. "Aye, it's been growing a bit." His hand sliding off the shoulder, slowly, down the chest which stopped breathing until the hand came to rest on one once massive thigh. "You used to like it long and wild." He smiled, once again refused to acknowledge a nagging irritation, concentrating on only one sensation: of Vadim being back. Almost two years, and he still could not believe it, but his heart was thawing like glacier ice, the full force of emotions beneath the turquoise-shimmering surface, waiting to burst out.

Vadim closed his eyes, tried to escape, but couldn't keep them closed, couldn't trust a world that was entirely hostile or wrong or unfamiliar. Alien. Finally connected the facts. "How … did you do it? How did you convince them?"

Again something didn't feel quite right for Dan, but he could not bear to dwell on it. Of course, it made sense that Vadim was distant. Almost two years and the Lubyanka ….

"Money, bribes, but mostly diplomatic bitchfighting." He grinned when the Baroness let out a small cough in the front seat.

Vadim's eyes were immediately on the woman ambassador and another wave of dread hit him. Wasn't there any way to get out of this car? "I'm not sure I understand", he carefully put together, concentrating on the conversation, trying to find words, and most of all thoughts, but his mind felt empty and desolate.

"It's quite simple." Dan's hand still resting on Vadim's thigh, connected-connecting. "We know there was too much opposition against the KGB from inside the Soviet Union, and the KGB was too weakened to push through an execution based on insufficient evidence and a confession signed under … duress." Dan just couldn't say it. Not that word, not 'torture'. "So, we gathered the funds to …" he shrugged, "ach well, you could say 'persuade' the fuckers. The UK had you long cleared by then and offered asylum, all we needed to do was discuss the conditions of your release." Haggling the price, offer and counter-offer, refusal and hard-arsed fights. The Baroness and her contacts had had a field day.

"I'm cleared."

"Yes, you are." Dan nodded and smiled.

That was good. He wouldn't be hunted anymore. He could rest. Vadim was nodding to himself at that thought. Cleared. Not guilty. Well, guilty, but pardoned. "How much?" What's the value of the rest of me? Idly curious, not bitter, nothing, detached, like talking about a painting's value that he would never be able to afford.

"Under a quarter million." Dan made a joke out of it, grinning.

"Pound?" The number was vast. Vadim's mind stumbled over that amount, couldn't understand how he could possibly be worth so much, how anybody could demand so much money.

"You're worth every money in the world to me, aye?"

"What rip-off", murmured Vadim. The interrogator likely had got a piece of that, but above all, the faceless men he'd never seen, that just signed and gave orders. Men who had ordered the interrogator to do what he'd done.

"What do you mean?" Dan leaned forward, crossing the narrow space between them.

Clarify this, please.

Vadim's face twitched. "Quarter of million pound. That's …" too much. Too much for what's left of me. The most expensive beef on the market. More than a thousand pounds per pound of flesh, easily.

"Less than that." Dan shook his head, leaned back in the seat. "Don't worry, money means nothing. It's what money can do that has meaning, and you are here, alive, and free." His hand stroked Vadim's thigh, the niggling worry soothed by the limousine's quiet purr as it navigated the winter landscape towards Helsinki, while the Baroness sat quietly in the front, studying some papers.

Vadim shuddered, remembered the interrogator who'd sneer at him, who'd tell him what a disappointment he was, and what a waste of breath. Just that creeping darkness inside, crawling, and coiling, and Vadim wanted nothing but to escape that thought, but he couldn't sleep, couldn't rest. He stared outside into the snow, the calm landscape seemed like a good place to be, nothing but darkness and snow. No people. No expectations.

Dan fell silent, just watching Vadim. Looking, always looking and touching. Moving closer until his thigh touched the other's, his hand still on skin-warmed cloth, and his shoulder against Vadim's. He didn't know what he wanted, if it was touch, kiss, taste, as much as sex, but he knew that it was reassurance that kept him close. That, and the vast amount of emotions that began to force their way to the surface. He was quiet for a long time, until he murmured, "I never stopped loving you."

But I did. The thought hit Vadim, and he closed his eyes again. He just didn't feel anything, but he remembered what it had been like to feel, and that, now, was the worst torture. Guilt and loss and utter numbness that covered everything in oppressive silence. He nodded, not wanting to speak, unable to either answer as expected, or feel as expected.

Dan said nothing, once again, just smiled. Giving space, and giving time. The once impatient youth had turned into the man who could outwait the Afghan mountains. If he had to, and if it was worth it.

The rest of the drive took place in silence except for the hum of the engine, until the car began to slow down, close to a large building with many lights. "We are here," the Baroness craned her head, nodding. "Just a small gathering of friends, who have all helped to get you out, Major. They would like to shake your hand and welcome you to Britain."

"Yes, of course." Obligation. Duty. Vadim would do as ordered, do what she wanted, just couldn't resist anything now, not even raise objections.

The gates opened and Vadim saw the flags and big cars, and that was the embassy, then. British flag. He left the car, stood there, looked at her, and then at Dan for clues. Expected to be ordered to change, make himself presentable, felt more insecurity when he thought of all these people. Her friends. Presenting to them what was left of Major Krasnorada. What an anticlimax, what disappointment.

Dan stepped close. "Come with me?" Odd, to ask this as a question, but he felt somehow insecure around Vadim. This Vadim. The thin man with blond stubble in his face and shorn head. Smelling of mothballs and dressed in a loose army coat and scuffed boots.

Dan's voice suddenly broke again, and he had to clear his throat, glancing at the Baroness, who thankfully jumped into the awkward gap. "Would you like to refresh yourself, Major?" She smiled, a gloved hand and fur-coated arm pointed towards the embassy, brightly lit, the staff waiting. "There are comfortable facilities here."

Vadim looked towards the building and nodded. "Of course." Confirming an order. Refresh. Shave. Shower. Change? 'Major' sounded wrong. Like she called him 'Prince' or something else that wasn't part of him. He had no idea why, was it mockery, he couldn't decide, and didn't have the strength to ponder it.

He moved ahead, kept his gaze lowered, followed Dan who led the way towards the 'facilities' - and the whole place reeked money, and class, and prestige, and status. He felt lost, displaced, wrong, and felt another wave of nausea and fear. Felt like an impostor, like he deserved nothing of it, like he was a complete alien and somehow people fooled themselves about him.

The bathroom held clothes and there was a shower and shaving kit, a far cry from two days ago in prison, being told to 'clean up'. He needed incredible amounts of concentration to shave, avoided his own eyes in the mirror. He looked positively horrible, scared, haunted, deathly pale. Not even a shadow of himself. He looked like his own corpse.

* * *

Dan was waiting outside, had changed into a suit. Even though he still didn't like these things, he'd become part of the machinery and accepted the material necessities. Looking at the Baroness when she came towards him. "What do you think, Ma'm?" He couldn't help it. Insecurity coiling in his guts, while his heart was about to overflow with emotions that had dug their way to the surface.

She looked up at him, considering, smiling in the end and patting his arm. "Give him time. This man has just suffered through almost two years of imprisonment … and much, much worse. Give him time, Dan. Time and space. As we have talked about."

"I know, but … but it's hard."

She nodded, "I understand, but right now you are the strong one, so it is you who has to take control of yourself to make it easy on him."

"I will. I'll do anything, but Vadim is completely distant. It's as if he didn't even recognise me. I feel like treading on thin ice around a stranger, while the real Vadim, the man I know and love, is lurking somewhere inside."

"Perhaps it is so." She smiled a little. "I have arranged for a very good psychiatrist to meet him. He specialises in such cases and has worked with the British Legion and PTSD sufferers. He is, in fact, a medical Officer in the Forces. I hope he will be able to help with whatever psychological effects Major Krasnorada suffers from." She patted Dan's arm once more. "In the meantime, give him space and time, the love won't vanish suddenly, or will it?"

"No," Dan shook his head, violently, "it won't. No chance. Not now and not ever."

"Well, then," she smiled, "in that case, I shall see both of you at the dinner table."

She left him standing, and he watched her leave. Deep in thoughts while waiting for Vadim.

* * *

Vadim gave himself the most superficial glance in the mirror as he closed the last button. He looked like jailbait. Only the tattoos missing. Opening the door when all he wanted was to return to the shower and let the hot water run over him. Friends. Meet. Presentation. No way to run, no escape. Just get through it, on the other side, somehow.

He opened the door, saw Dan look up, smiling - look right at him and Vadim couldn't read the expression on the other's face. Shock? Irritation? He closed the door behind him and turned. "I'm ready", he said, to say anything, just to get through it, do the motions as expected.

It was just a small gathering - middle aged and old people in expensive clothes, relaxed and comfortable, still with an edge of … distance, or something else … and they looked at him with that same mix of expectation and was it hunger? Disdain for the homeless beggar who owed them so much.

Vadim wanted to turn and run away, allowed people to shake his hands, felt close to bolting every time somebody came towards him, smiling, introducing names and faces that his mind just couldn't process. All the same, one whirl of expectations and coded messages, he didn't belong here, it all felt wrong, out of place, like he'd stepped from the audience onto the stage while a play was in progress and everybody played along as if that was part of the script.

He could only nod and say words like "Thanks", and "me, too", and "nice meeting you", and hoped it would be alright and he didn't disappoint, didn't invite mockery or shame. Looking at the Ambassador every now and then who was gracious and steered the conversation along lines and rules that Vadim didn't understand but he guessed she made sure everything was under control.

Dan was there, too, at his shoulder, reaching out to touch his arm, his back, a touch that seemed awkward as well, and full of something that burnt like acid. Vadim remembered sex, but it seemed far away, like he somehow shared the memory of a different body, and kissing or holding was a bizarre thought after …

You're a predator, nothing else. You are incapable of any gentle emotion. For you, it's breaking and taking, or being broken and being taken. You do not understand anything else but brutality, and thus the only thing you can do is brutalise and being brutalised …

… and was he looking forward to living in Britain, asked somebody, and Vadim blinked, losing something vital for a moment, and nodded, shook his head, said "forgive me" and moved away, turned, saw Dan follow and didn't want him to be close because …

… you are not human. You're deluding yourself, but you are not human and have no right to the company of humans because you are nothing but an animal on the prowl, rabid, and awaiting to be shot like you deserve …

… Dan looked at him with that hope and … whatever it was, but it made everything worse, because he just. Couldn't feel.

* * *

Dan had carried the bags to the taxi, the suite had been booked. Vadim only signed the paper, wrote his first name in Cyrillic, then stopped, paused, crossed the name out, then wrote it in Latin. English transcription. Received the keys and then up to the suite, while Dan didn't talk much, just smiled at him, lingering as if waiting for something, but Vadim didn't have an answer. He wanted to rest, sleep, just escape.

The suite offered every comfort - it was huge, there was a lot of space, two bedrooms, a shared area. Far more space than Vadim was used to, he chose the first bedroom, same size as the other. Dan didn't bring it up, just put his bag into the other room and told him if he needed anything … Vadim again couldn't read the tone or expression, thanked him, glad to have escaped all the people and all the scrutiny, and that without screaming or collapsing. He felt he couldn't trust himself or his reactions anymore.

He took another shower, then went to bed, kept a light burning on the nightstand, heard the toilet flush a little later and Dan's footsteps outside. Vadim stared at the door, expected it to open, expected the guards to come back and beat him up and there was another wave of fear.

When the fear subsided, there was only. Emptiness. Worse. He felt like they had scraped him clean inside, reached inside and had removed all the tissue that kept him together. He had been moving, felt like lead and mud, brittle and heavy, and didn't know where to go.

It hurt to wait here and know about the other, hear him, even, and feel the one thing that he hadn't been prepared to feel. Emptiness. He knew in theory what to feel and maybe even how, but there was nothing. He couldn't even mourn it. Like he had used up all those feelings by just remembering them. He'd seen all those things in Dan's eyes, the hope, the joy to see him, and that was worse than being kicked in the teeth. Couldn't share it. Knew he should, but nothing moved. Felt like he had lost both legs and tried to walk in his sleep.

They were strangers now. To return just to realize that. Twenty-two months. They had gone through so much, and these twenty-two months had unmade him. And he couldn't just pretend to enjoy the kindness or the generosity. They scared him, like walking into another prison, lifelong obligation that he was expected to feel. Expected to succeed. As always. Somebody told him what was expected, and he had to succeed.

Couldn't. Couldn't look at Dan, couldn't meet his eyes, and felt like he was dead. At least, if he had been, Dan would just mourn him and get on with life. If the KGB had been merciful. If. When. Had been. Could have been. Vadim couldn't rest, got dressed again in the old clothes and the coat, only to take in the cold outside and sober up his mind.

Instead, the night air crept in. He felt like bronze, metal, a statue. Empty. He began walking, tried to get back into whatever it was that was him by walking. He was on the next road, three hours later, when he realized he was cold and he had no idea where he was heading. Didn't even think about turning back.

Dan was there, somewhere. Gone.

He headed on, trudged along a road, until, in the early morning, a truck moved closer. The driver stopped, offered him a lift. Vadim didn't speak a word of Finnish, didn't try Russian, didn't try English, gave him a grateful nod without feeling gratitude. Got off the truck just before the Swedish border. No papers.

Crossed the borders out in the forest, cold and desolate, snow blue in the moonlight, shadows darker blue. Found another truck, hitched another ride. They were friendly people, those truckers. They listened to late night radio, offered him something to eat. He didn't speak Swedish, either.

He walked off into the forest at one of gas stations, followed a dirt road as he crossed it.

He was very cold by then, welcomed the pain in his fingers and toes, told him there was still something. Something basic. On the outside. Was very tired and very cold and thought about spring and whether they would ever find him. Stumbled across some low fence, got up again, saw a frozen lake in the distance, dark blue ice, saw, nestled against the dark trees, a bungalow.

Survival. It didn't take much to open the door. The frame splintered in the cold, the only sound apart from his chattering teeth. Small place. He brought snow in, it was no warmer inside. Deserted. A couch. TV. Small kitchen. Small bedroom. Somebody's hideaway, a weekend dacha. He closed the door again, leaned an umbrella stand against it.

Cold. Cold. Found the light switch. Nothing. Found the main fuse, switched it. Started the heating. Was cold. The bed. Staggering towards the bed, too cold to fall asleep, too tired to stay awake.

Awoke scared.

Undressed only then, checked out the place. He could leave. Made sure he could leave. The building was wood, lost heat faster than a cooling corpse. Found the gas stove, made tea, sitting in somebody else's tiny kitchen, slumped on the bench, drank from somebody else's chipped mug. Saw the mugs hanging from a wooden rack. Mickey Mouse. Roses. A family.

Slept some more, awoke scared and weak with hunger. Found rice, cooked rice. Tinned tuna. Ate both with his fingers. Slept.

Place wouldn't get properly warm. Better than the cell.

No, don't remember.

Slept again, slept as long as he could, lay in somebody else's bed and stared at the ceiling. Wanted vodka. Wanted anything, anything but what he had.

If he couldn't be human, at least he could be an animal, concerned only with shelter, food, and sleep.


1990 - Helsinki, 24th-25th December

"I wanna ... wanna shpeak to the Baronesh. Ish Dan. Dan McFadyen." Added, remembering her world knew manners, "Please. I know ish Chrishmas, but ish important."

A miracle, they seemed to get her. Perhaps his name carried a meaning he was not aware of at this moment in time. Finally hearing the click of the phone.

"Ma'm?" Before she acknowledged the call.

"Yes? Dan, why do you call?" Her voice as pristine as ever, familiar sounds, stability. Unlike the vodka, which only offered him tears. Too much like the Russian.

"Do you … do you need shomeone to guard you? Shomewhere bad? Dangerous? I need to get out of here." He tried to stop slurring his words, to get his act together, but the empty bottle on the floor too much of a foe to conquer.

"Dan, why do you ask?" Slightly alarmed her voice, but he failed to notice. Failed to answer, in fact, held the phone, stared at the wall.

He'd never felt so empty in all his life. Alone. Even emptier than death had been.

"Dan?" A minute had passed, her voice became urgent. "Dan, speak to me. What is wrong?"

His vision returned in increments. Wall, to table, to floor, to bottle, to hand.

"He'sh gone." Empty, dejected.

"Who? What do you mean? Dan, you have to explain this to me."

He clung to her voice, the unwavering constant. He'd had just a few hours. Hopes and wishes, all of them had come true. Almost two years of fighting, never resigning. Then at last, at long last. How Vadim had stepped out of the car. Snow breaking-sliding beneath his boots.

He'd never forgotten the eyes. Pale. Ice. Sometimes dark as a frozen lake, beckoning closer, daring to cross the thin surface. And he'd always accepted the challenge.

"He's gone."

She should understand. There was only one, just one who could have come - and gone.

"Dan?" Her voice again, he'd almost forgotten the line was still open. "Dan, I send you my driver. You just wait there. He will pick you up in fifteen minutes."

So she knew.

"Aye, Ma'm."

A click, and the line went dead. He put the phone down, stared at his calloused hand. The good one.

Lapushka.

Merry fucking Christmas, Dan.

Perhaps it was the vodka that made him cry.

1990 - Helsinki, 25th December. Christmas Day

The world did not look any better on Christmas day morning. Dan woke curled up on the couch in one of the visitor rooms in the embassy, and someone had placed a blanket over him. A crystal carafe with water and a fine glass stood on a mahogany table beside him on an inlaid tray, together with a packet of tablets that looked like alka seltzer and aspirin.

Dan tried to sit up, groaned, his head was pounding like a whorehouse on a Saturday night. Clutching his forehead, he managed to get vertical, stabilising himself for a moment. Peered at the tablets, didn't give a damn what they were as long as they provided some relief.

He was gone.

Those three words hammering through his mind. Worse than the headache, more debilitating than any hangover. Dan reached for water and pills, popped a handful, washed them down with the water. He wiped his hand across his face, tried to brush away a moment of acute embarrassment, remembering tears, crying in front of her, he had been unable to stop it. Shit. Couldn't be helped. Pushed the memory aside.

Gone.

He closed his eyes, listened to the pounding in his head, at least it told him he was alive. Everything else empty, numb and terrifyingly lost. He'd stepped across the threshold of pain, even Vadim's hour of execution and the bitch's blackmail seemed to pale. He hadn't learned how to cope with such hurt and its magnitude was overwhelming. So he shut off, forced everything down, and locked away any feeling. Better to be dead inside.

Empty.

Dan was sitting with his head in his hands, blanket half thrown onto the floor, when a knock on the door disturbed his abject misery. The door opened after a moment, he could hear heels clicking across the parquet, coming closer, until they stopped right in front of him. He knew who it was before he even looked up.

"I believe you could do with a strong coffee." Baroness de Vilde sounded just as ever. Nothing seemed to perturb the precise consonants and elongated vowels.

Dan took the bone china cup from her hands, tried to smile his thanks, failed, gave up pitifully. Too empty. "Thanks, Ma'm."

Gone. Vadim was gone.

The coffee was black, strong and overly sweet, just as he liked it. Funny how this upper-class lady had turned into the closest to a friend he had ever had.

He drank the first few sips in silence, while she pulled one of the lounge chairs close. Sat down and watched him patiently. As ever pristine and elegantly dressed. Impossible to imagine her with her feathers ruffled.

Dan looked at her; the scruffy, worn-out soldier with fucked-up body - and the grey-haired lady, epitome of British peerage and perfection. His gaze transfixed on her hair, as stiffly coiffed as always, wearing the grey helmet of superiority with inimitable style. The corner of his mouth twitched, but then he remembered seeing her once in disarray. He'd never found out what she had been shouting before his body succumbed to agony and unconsciousness.

She met his gaze with unwavering calm. "Dan, are you still adamant to be put to work in the most dangerous place I can find?"

He took his time, waited until the mortar attack in his head subsided, before carefully nodding.

Manicured hands folded in her lap, she nodded, a simple gesture. "I thought you would." She smiled briefly, tinged with an odd melancholy. "I have never known you to waver once you have made a decision. However, I do feel I have to enquire about the wisdom of your decision."

"I can't Ma'm." He tried to shake his head, aborted the movement when a wave of nausea rolled over him.

"You can't what, Dan? Please explain."

"I can't stay here, can't go on. I tried to explain last night but I guess I was too drunk." Dan dropped his aching head into his hands, staring straight ahead onto the floor, while she waited, patiently.

"Ma'm," Lifting his head gingerly after a long silence, "I can't even explain what is happening inside of me. Don't know if there is more hurt or pain, or fear, or anger, or if there is simply absolutely nothing."

She still just listened, her intelligent eyes resting with a gentle expression on Dan's weary appearance.

"I guess … there is just nothing. Nothing at all." Dan's gaze slid off her face, until it dropped onto the ring in her lap. The engagement ring. Love lost, never found. Perhaps she would understand? "I can't go on. I haven't got the strength anymore." He murmured, never lifting his eyes. "Not right now."

She nodded gently, leaning forward to place her finely manicured hand onto his own that had been lying forlorn on his knee. This time he turned his hand and simply took hers. Holding those elegant fingers in his own calloused ones, and taking strength from the touch.

"I could search for him for you, I would find him." She said very quietly after a long while, but he knew from her voice that she was as aware of his answer as he was.

"No. Please don't." Dan finally lifted his head, still holding her hand, just for a little while longer. "I can't. I can't do this again. I just can't." The sense of utter defeat permeated his being: body and mind, and every thought he was still capable of.

"I understand." And he knew that she did. Knew from her slight nod, her strangely sad smile, and the way she squeezed his hand before letting go of it. "I have already made some enquiries and I can assure you that there are places where your expertise will be more than welcome, and the financial reward is substantial."

Dan shook his head slightly, carefully. He was not interested in money, could not care less. Just away, away from there, even if it meant leaving the only true friend he had ever had. Yet the prospect of active duty, of living on the edge once more, gave him something other than the empty abyss inside. He felt himself pulled towards a purpose that promised more than just bottles of booze and a sad excuse for an ex soldier who had got fucked over by the world and resented its existence.

"Thank you, Ma'm. I knew I could count on you." He meant it. Meant more than the words seemed to convey, but she'd understand.

"Loyalty brings forth loyalty in return." She smiled, alluding to a day, almost three years ago.

"I was just doing my job, Ma'm", Dan replied, his standard answer.

Her nod being the equally standard reply - they both knew, a wordless understanding.

He emptied the coffee, ignored the churning in his bowels and the creeping sickness that accompanied the hangover.

"When are you looking to relocate, Dan?" Returning to the focus of their conversation, she held out her hand for the empty cup.

He handed it to her, did not hesitate a moment with his answer. "As soon as possible. I cannot bear to be here any longer."

"Yes, I understand," and once again he knew that she did. "I will arrange for you to be on a plane before the New Year." She stood up, smoothed her skirt. "I was told that Iraq is the most dangerous place to be in 1990." Adding, quietly, "If this is what you want."

"Aye, Ma'm. It is where I need to be."

She nodded, her expression inscrutable as she turned, but stopped, slowly retraced her steps and for a moment her carefully guarded features changed into the concerned face of a friend

"Please, don't get yourself killed, Dan."

He looked up and nodded, a silent promise. No suicidal missions born out of desperation.

If he could help it.


1990 - Sweden, 27th December

A bright light in his eyes. Vadim awoke startled, squinting against the light that made him remember harsh words and a faceless silhouette, the interrogation room. He rolled to the side, fell onto his knees, heard somebody speak, startled, moved away. He was breathing hard, body forced into a reaction it hardly remembered how to perform.

He was cold, cold and hungry and felt like a bear prodded from the cave. Not awake, couldn't react while the stress pounded in his ears. Felt helpless. His hands were untied. He could move, could stretch, could stand up.

Somebody said something, the torch was lowered, and he saw two men stand in his camp, looking around with obvious distaste. It was cold inside, cold enough for their breath to mist in the room. Uniforms. Young, fresh faces.

One said something. He didn't understand, just looked at him, the one with the torch. The question was repeated, the one behind the first one - they must be police, thought Vadim - said something and unbuttoned the leather holster, all obvious for him. Vadim knew that language. The other cop asked something, then took handcuffs from his belt. He was taken into custody. Again. Vadim looked at the gun, saw how the cop saw that glance and pulled the weapon. Taking no risks.

He stood up, slowly, the one with the torch stepped up, indicated for him to turn around, Vadim did, a hand between his shoulder blades pushed him to the wall, insistent. They took his wrists and closed the cool metal around them. He was patted down, the coat, the trousers, they even checked the boots and his collar. Paused in between, and Vadim detected disgust. Not smelling too good. No emotion.

He was marched outside, through the blue snow. The lake glistened with ice. He was hungry. Hungry and cold.

They made him get into a car. It was warm. The radio was on. An English song. It sounded fast. 'Cold on a mission so fall on back. Let 'em know that you're too much. And this is a beat uh you can't touch'.

Repetitive. But those were words he understood. He leaned against the door and went back to half-sleep, not giving a fuck about anything. He just didn't have the strength even to wonder. He assumed they'd take him deeper into the forest and shoot him there.

The car stopped on a cobbled market place. A huge Christmas tree right in the middle. They made him get out, brought him inside a warm, brightly lit building.

He squinted, smelled coffee, saw a few cops look up. The two men who had brought him in said something, jokingly, brought him through. One made a phone call, the other sat him down on a wooden bench and took the cuffs off. Offered him a plastic cup with coffee, almost in an afterthought. Vadim took it, warmed his hands, realized from the way the liquid burned just how cold he was. Looked up.

The cop spoke to him again. He didn't understand the language. Not that he wanted to. He didn't care. They could shoot him already. The cop shook his head, asked something over his shoulder, the other policeman was still speaking on the phone, and answered. He tried a weak smile, but Vadim could see he was slightly flustered. Tried a different language. Nothing. Vadim looked up, then dropped his gaze. It took too much concentration. He didn't care.

They marched him into a cell and there was a flutter of panic at the tiles and the bunk that was bolted to the wall and the floor. Vadim didn't like the look of the tiles. He breathed hard, felt his body react, knew it made no difference. Knew it made no difference if he was afraid or not. No power. They could make him yield. All he did was invite pain.

The cop looked at him, and Vadim saw something strange in the man's face. He was in his early twenties, blonde hair, almost translucent hair and lashes. Vadim shook his head. "Nyet." The closest he could get to asking for mercy.

The policeman shouted something down the corridor, and two more cops arrived. Vadim thought they would force him in, beat him into submission. So much for daring to resist. He stepped in, tried to undo the damage. Hoped they'd see he complied.

But they just stood around him, as if regarding an exotic animal hauled in from the forest. One had a small book and leaved through it, tried out the sounds in there before speaking.

"You ... Russian?" In Russian. Vadim looked up, saw the strange little parade of uniformed men trying to talk to him. Couldn't quite get why. Why they bothered. He nodded.

Somebody said something, and one of the cops bolted towards the door. Vadim looked after him. Wished they would shut the door and forget about him.

They didn't. Eventually, a bearded man with glasses showed up, accompanied by the cop who had left. Vadim suspected they were bored out of their skulls that they lingered around. This place did seem very peaceful.

"Good evening", said the man, in Russian. Hardly an accent. "I'm the local Russian teacher."

Vadim nodded.

"I understand you are Russian?"

You don't understand, thought Vadim. He sat down on the bunk.

"These policemen need to take your personal details", said the teacher, and he was being polite.

Name, rank, number.

The teacher looked confused, then seemed surprised, unpleasantly surprised. Said something to the cops, who seemed to cool towards him. Something like: He is a soldier.

"Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada?"

Vadim nodded.

"What are you doing here? Did you run away? Are you a convict?" He talked to the cops again, nodded. "Listen, Vadim. Do you understand what I am saying?"

Vadim looked up. "Tired", he said.

Hungry, too. He wanted to lie down and sleep.

"You should wash and have new clothes", said the teacher. "They also want to have the doctor have a look at you. Come. You can sleep later." Talking as if to a child.

Vadim thought that doing what he was told was easier than resisting. They brought him to another tiled room, and again that tightness in his chest, the thought that it would be easy to wash blood away here. Took off his coat, undressed. He couldn't remember when he had been naked the last time. Had been much too cold. Had needed all the blankets and the mattress to insulate.

The cop said something as Vadim pulled the jumper over his head. Dropped it. Didn't have enough focus to fold it. He didn't think they'd allow him to keep the clothes. The teacher nodded, then looked at him. "He says he might have something that fits, but only barely." Vadim took the shirt off as well, bowed down to open the boots, let his body do this. It remembered how to do this. Took less effort. Don't think.

Pulled down his trousers, his pants. He was thin he realized as he opened the belt. The cop gave him some kind of shower gel, started the water for him. Both left the room. Vadim stood under the hot water and let it run down his body. Felt something creep to the surface, something he didn't want. Forced himself to wash, noticed the grime under his fingernails, the stickiness on his body. Washed away. He should make use of the water while it lasted.

It was much warmer than he had expected, and he began to sweat, felt his heart pound. Felt a shadow of something large move under the surface. Water. Heat.

As nobody came to summon him, he eventually stopped. Saw his toes, which looked half frozen. Fingers swollen and discoloured. The wrists. Raw. Swollen. The cold had been pretty bad.

Took the towel. It smelled fresh. Dried himself. Kept the damp towel in front of his body. Remembered he loved the shower. Loved water. Somebody knocked on the door. That courtesy was ridiculous. Vadim had no strength to laugh.

The Russian teacher again, and the cop. The latter said something, nodding approval. The teacher seemed to wonder whether to translate, then let it be. They gave him pants and trousers, all too wide, but the length was right, the jeans comfortable, frayed, soft and firm. A jumper, knitted, colourful. Vadim was suddenly warm. He even sweated. Socks. Military surplus.

They brought him back into the cell and there was another man. The doctor, the teacher explained. The whole village bourgeoisie was there. Vadim did not resist, was prodded, the man checked on his toes and fingers - he'd keep them, the Russian teacher said, but it was damned close.

Then a sharp intake of breath as the doctor was placing the stethoscope on his back. Said something.

The teacher cleared his throat. Said the word. Pizda. Cunt.

They talked amongst themselves, then the teacher asked: "Were you tortured?"

Vadim shrugged. What did it matter. He waited, breathed as he was told, then the doctor nodded, said something. The teacher smiled. "He says you should be alright, just a bronchitis. Nothing he can do about the rest." They talked, the doctor left. Vadim sat down heavily on his bunk, pulled the jumper back over his body.

Pizda. The KGB had liked that. He shuddered.

"Are you alright?" asked the teacher.

Vadim didn't look up. Feared he would see the bars at the iron door. Wanted to see nothing.

"You are here for breaking and entering. They thought you were … vandalizing. Then they thought you were a tramp. Well, technically, you are a tramp." The teacher tried to meet his gaze.

Vadim turned his head away. "I don't care about going to prison." As long as they don't hit me. As long as I am not alone. It is so difficult to think when nobody's there. But these people talked an awful lot.

The teacher seemed flustered. "They are getting in touch with the embassy. They should pick you up."

And all for nothing. Vadim nodded. He'd almost frozen to death, he was better off locked away somewhere. Anywhere. Whatever. He was tired, pulled his legs up on the bunk, reached for the folded blanket. Heavy wool. Lay down and turned to face the tiled wall. Felt a shudder run through his body. The memory of being cold. They would come and pick him up. They had broken him, and shown him he could never get up and walk again. Never walk away. He just didn't have the strength. Not a bone left in his body.

He closed his eyes. Sleep. So tired.

* * *

The door opened and the cop came in. He kept checking on him, mostly when Vadim had convinced himself that the world consisted of this cell and found a strange consolation in that fact. He could forget about the world outside. There was a toilet, there was food, and he wasn't cold. Heaven was a place without pain.

Vadim knew by now that the word that people used for this man was his name. Manke. The young guy who had found him. Had handcuffed him. Something about that should trigger something inside, a kind of humour, but Vadim didn't feel it. He glanced up.

Manke leaned against the wall. Keys on his belt.

Easy to attack him, take the keys and escape. The man carried enough things to be able to survive. A gun. Keys. A torch. Radio. This police station had enough to ensure survival. Bash his face in, take the stuff, run away. He could even take him hostage.

And what for?

At least he hadn't brought the teacher this time. Manke talked with hands and feet, and Vadim understood the basics. His Pushtu and Dari had never progressed beyond that level.

Manke studied him, then shook his head. "Do you speak English? Maybe a little?"

Vadim looked up, and saw that Manke interpreted that as a yes.

"We have a problem", the cop said. "You don't exist." He paused, as if waiting for a reaction, but Vadim merely looked at him. "We got in touch with your people. The Soviet … uhm, Russian embassy. It's all a bit of a mess at the moment. But they never heard of you."

Vadim opened his lips, then shook his head and lowered his gaze. That was it. They had kicked him out for good and forgotten he had ever existed. Worse than a traitor, worse than a deserter, and worse than death. It should hurt, but it didn't. They had wiped their hands off him.

"Now, the boss sent me to ask you your real name."

Torture. Vadim felt his shoulders tense, couldn't breathe for a long moment. He had been a fool to expect that to stop. He was in their hands, they wouldn't let him go like that.

"But it's funny you gave your rank and number." The cop smiled. "Why should you make up a number? That's the part that doesn't fit. I mean, ex-majors that get here for breaking and entering. If you were insane, you'd be the General Secretary. If you wanted to keep a low profile, why give a rank at all?" Manke shook his head again. "You wouldn't want to look like a deserter. No, you are ex-military. And that is where you have the scars from."

Vadim looked up. The reasoning was simple, straightforward, and betrayed much more common sense than he had encountered for ages.

"But we need to confirm your identity. Any pointers?"

"For prison?"

Manke raised his eyebrows, finally hearing him speak. "You did some substantial damage in that place, like breaking the door. We are in touch with the owners, and they should be returning in a week. They are in Sicily, catching some sun." He shook his head. "Granted, it kept you from freezing to death."

"Can't fault me that, huh?"

Manke laughed. "Are you Vadim Krasnorada? Seriously. Is that your name? Are you Russian?"

The question and answers thing almost became a game. There had been times when he would have answered something like "Do I sound like a fucking Ukrainian", but the time for that kind of joke was over. He just looked at the man.

"Okay, I'll call that a 'yes'." Manke nodded. "I will find out who you are, Major. You are not a ghost. People leave tracks."

Spetsnaz don't.

1990 - Sweden, 31st December. New Year

The police station was nearly deserted, apart from Manke. Nobody else in the cells.

In this kind of place, they didn't keep drunks in the cells for long. They were admonished, fined, then they drove them home. This town dealt with crime by slapping offenders on the wrist, because there was nothing serious to deal with. Vadim realized why he had caused a minor sensation when they caught him. All other offenders seemed to be neighbours that had had a bad day. And were treated exactly like neighbours. He wasn't.

Manke was just measuring coffee powder into a filter. Vadim preferred the smell to the taste, but coffee was always something one could warm the hands on. Paperwork on Manke's desk. Nothing that seemed to be connected to him. Missing people reports, yes, but the one he could see was about a teenage girl with braces and a ponytail high up on her head that failed very much to look sassy.

He sat down in front of the desk. The calendar, 31st. December, New Year's Eve in 1990. Everything was falling apart. Had been for years. He shook his head.

"Even though you seem to like it in your cell, I'm a little lonely", said the cop, shut the coffee machine and flicked the switch. It began to make gargling noises. "You mind being company?"

Vadim shrugged. "Do you have food?"

Manke nodded. "Some pizza. Yogurt in the fridge. Uhm. Beef jerky somewhere in the desk."

Vadim nodded. "Will do."

Manke prepped two mugs with tourist motifs with milk and sugar and sat down. Vadim suspected he had got the New Year's shift because he had no family or didn't mind.

"I spent quite a bit of time in the library", said Manke suddenly. "You know, old-fashioned investigation." He reached behind himself and dropped a folder on his desk. Vadim looked up, but didn't touch it. "Not easy. Did you get kicked out because you threatened to kill him?"

"No." Maybe. He could feel the old anger stir again.

"Boris Onishchenko won a silver medal in modern pentathlon, '72 in Munich." Manke shook his head. "Not exactly Olympic spirit."

"He tried to force it", said Vadim. "Guess coach knew. But we were on fifth position, and … were expected to bring medal." I was desperate to get a medal, too. I wanted all the work to pay off. He shook his head. Strange that those thoughts were still there. After all those years. One shot at glory, and then disqualified for cheating, sent home.

"Who won gold?"

"British", said Vadim. Dan's people. Call that fucking irony.

"That must have hurt."

"Worse than being shot."

Manke looked as if he had somehow forgotten to gloat about the fact he had solved the riddle. As if that disgrace, that humiliation was somehow stronger than the intellectual victory. Then again, he didn't look like he had gloating inside him.

"I wasn't ready before that", said Vadim, kept looking at the folder and knew it held photocopies of what Manke had found. The whole sordid story of a bunch of model athletes that had been sent packing because they had acted as if the Olympic spirit was a myth. Winning at all cost. The Olympics, the Cold War, fucking Afghanistan. Victory was expected, punishment for failure imminent. A matter of national pride. "And I never got ready again after that."

"They could have sent you to Moscow. That's where you were born."

Vadim shook his head. "That was it. Last one."

Manke leaned back, regarded him. "Do you think you could have won?"

Vadim inhaled, thought of what the masseur had said. He could win. Of course. Never impossible, not because of any of his flaws. It was luck, in the end, blind chance. He only regretted he hadn't killed the cheater. That was a worse regret than not getting a chance to at least try for the medal. He didn't want to answer that question. It touched too many things. "I'll never find out."

Manke got up again and poured steaming coffee into the mugs, put both down in the middle of the desk. "An Olympic athlete. I figured you were some kind of swimmer, but that takes the biscuit." He gave a laugh that seemed not at all mocking.

"Not that strange. Lots of", spetsnaz, "paras are top athletes. Comes with job." And how they had gloated how easy it was, in the teeth of the Cold War, to send dozens of trained killers into the enemy's capitals and get a feel for the places. Just in case they had to spearhead the invasion. He remembered the questions by journalists, about his lieutenant rank. They must have assumed he wore that like some kind of honours degree. Krasnorada was too pretty to be evil.

Manke nodded. "I was thinking. Why does the embassy no longer remember you?"

Vadim stared into his coffee. Thought he wanted to return to his cell, or attack this man, take what he could use and be on his way. The only thing that kept him from it was that he had no idea where he should go. It was warm here. He didn't say anything.

"Well. First things first. You're in trouble with the law. I figure I can talk to people, and tell them that they stand to gain nothing if they press charges. It's not like you carry a lot of valuables on you. I happen to know the family, it's a small town. If you're willing to make a gesture, help with some work, I figure we could fix this without getting too much law involved. Because you will not come out on top, Vadim."

"Why?"

"The law doesn't like people without states. You're as illegally here as you could be. I guess the embassy doesn't remember you because they just don't want you back. For whatever reason."

"Afganets." Vadim swallowed hot coffee.

"Afghanistan? You're a veteran of that war? Did it do something to your mind? And they threw you on the trash pile, age forty-one, with no help? Just forgot about you?" He shook his head. "Shit. That's nasty even by Soviet standards."

No strength to correct Manke. Close enough. All the other things made matters only too complicated. Didn't have to tell him about the crimes, the cleansing, the despair of the last few years. He had never felt any of those. It was like he had read about them. None of that was him. "Let me go. I will just vanish."

Manke shook his head. "You're not Swedish, but I can't just let you walk out. Without papers, you can't do any legal work. And how would you feed yourself? Begging?"

Vadim inhaled. "Just let me go."

Manke stood, came around his desk, fast movements, much faster than he had moved before. Vadim's knuckles turned white as he moved his head to the side. Minimize damage.

Manke stopped. "What the fuck … did they do to you?" He crouched, seemed to want to reach for Vadim's hand, but Vadim knew he'd hit him, only to not be touched. Couldn't stand touch. Rather be hit in the face. "Don't."

Manke raised his hands. "Not touching." He stood up and pulled back for a few steps, sat on the corner of his desk. "I'll be in touch with the family. I'll sort this out. My good deed of the week. Fresh air and a little work might be actually good for you, nothing like it to sort your mind out." He sat back down and looked at the clock on the wall. "And have a good 1991."


1990 - Kuwait, 31st December. New Year

Dan had climbed into the Herc like a child returning to the womb. Knew and relished the comfort of familiar discomfort. Five hours, now, sitting in a cacophony of engine noise, amidst grey plastic along ceilings and walls, interspersed with various wiring sheathing and the odd bit of masking tape. Disconcerting for a new recruit, comforting for a disillusioned ex-soldier.

He'd been lucky, she'd got him onto the next possible flight out to Baghdad, on the thirty-first of December, with nothing but a payload of passengers. Temporary seating of aluminium framework and red webbing was put in position, running along the outside and down the central spine to form four loose rows. Uncanny resemblance to the inside of a very long Landrover - mega-wheel base. Basic, but functional. The kind of barren environment that soothed the emptiness of Dan's agonized mind.

His luggage of large bergan and a sports bag with additional necessities like the vitamin pills and extra nutrients that he needed for his fucked-up guts, packed on pallets with rope netting stretched over it, at the back, near the rear doors of the plane. Out of sight - out of mind. All he had taken with him was the additional equipment he'd bought in a military surplus and outdoor shop: new shades, boots, socks and survival equipment. He'd left everything else behind, anything connected with his life before Christmas Eve, even the string of lapis lazuli beads. The Baroness had said she'd keep them safe, but he'd told her to bin the trash.

Couldn't bear the memories, had been tortured by them for nearly two years, had finally signed his confession.

The noise was getting worse the closer they got to the Gulf, or perhaps it was just his imagination. Dan had tried to get some sleep, climbing on piles of cargo and rolling up in his sleeping bag to keep warm, but the thoughts wouldn't let him. He'd squashed up the yellow ear defenders and pushed them inside his ear, nodding to the loadmaster before climbing into his sleeping bag, but even the familiarity of noise and smell, company of younger soldiers and hard-assed mercs, hadn't helped to fight the never ending cycle of questions for which he had no answer. Round and round in a carousel of pain, the why? and the where? and the when? and back to the why? again.

It fucking hurt.

He couldn't even throw himself into he next suicide mission. As much as that was against his natural survival instinct, right now it would beat the endless emptiness and numbing pain, but he'd given his word. Bloody clever bitch, that Baroness, she knew him better than he did himself. Wouldn't get himself killed, but hell, he'd get himself at least into trouble, to feel anything at all.

The loadmaster issued orders, seemed it was time to land, a quick piss in the bucket before getting to those makeshift seats, and the plane descended towards Baghdad.

What if enemy missiles hit their target while they were circling down towards the ground? So what. Dan felt nothing. Tough shit. Occupational hazard. He'd be dead, couldn't be deader than right now. Impossible superlative of final measures.

The Herc touched down, vomiting its human load into the desert. British soldiers, some close security and a handful of insane fuckers like himself. Dan grabbed his bergan, strapped it onto his back and snatched the extra bag. Pushed the shades back over his eyes and stepped into the glaring sun that caught in the silver streaks of his hair. An old fucker who was out there to lose himself in the danger.

"Happy fucking New Year, Dan McFadyen."

 

1991 - Sweden, March

Vadim helped with some work when the weather improved. Couldn't do much at first, tired out too fast, sweating in the forest, clearing out trees that would be dug up in spring, chainsaw, axes, piling the wood up. He worked to not think, with a man and his two cousins, young and very strong.

Seemed Manke had told them his mind was broken, they were careful around him, nobody ever approached from behind or patted him on the shoulder, instead communication was mostly hand signs and short orders in Swedish that Vadim learned to understand. Good food, fresh, much better than what he had eaten. His appetite returned with his strength, still the weakest of the bunch, runt of the litter, and he needed more rest, but it was good to only deal with logs, to see those guys fool around, having fun that was not dark at all, just young people joking and laughing.

Manke came to visit every now and then, they talked in Swedish and Vadim felt this strange hope he could just stay, work in the forest, no people but the men he worked with, no talk, no thought. But several weeks later, the piece of forest was cleared, and there was a small celebration which involved 'oel' - that was beer - and vodka.

One morning in March, Manke showed up again, in his patrol car, like he had sometimes brought him clothes, probably asking around for jumpers and trousers and boots and underwear, and, small town, had received some used, but sound stuff. "He says you're a good worker", said Manke and had a walk around the clearing, breath misting in front of his face, but Spring made its advance known. The air smelled differently. The days grew longer. "And you look much better, too. Putting some muscle back on, eh?" He paused, but Vadim didn't respond. "Charges dropped. You're still illegal, or we would just keep you around. Any chance you could apply for political asylum? Learn the language … and just stay."

"You don't want that", said Vadim.

"And why not? We'd find you something to do."

"It's not political."

"What did you do, Vadim?" Manke turned to face him. "I can just taste you're guilty of something, but you don't look like a criminal. Just don't make sense to me, and I'm a cop, I don't like that."

"Misconduct. Dishonourable discharge. Conduct unbecoming."

"Those are pretty words for something that's less pretty, huh?"

Vadim inhaled. "I can't remember. It was bad."

Manke shook his head. "If I let you go … I mean, you could have walked away often enough, but now it's as official as we can make it. What are you going to do?"

He'd considered that. Crime. He didn't want to do any of that stuff here, robbing and killing. Options, but he didn't want to disappoint the cop. He had considered joining one of the big tankers, he'd go further down the coast, find a way to get to the big harbours, Riga, Rotterdam, be just a pair of hands. They might not care about papers. Might end up in the tropics, vanish, nameless like an animal, somewhere. Anywhere. Didn't have the determination to follow through with that.

Had considered a bullet, but it was too good a feeling to lift logs and stand there in the snowy forest, feeling breath flow freely. As long as he could feel that - as little as it was - he didn't want to end it. Didn't have a gun, and didn't like the idea of cutting or hanging. He wanted to make sure it worked.

Maybe. Maybe that. If that was the final option. There had to be ways to get a gun. Find a remote place, leave even the last people behind, and do it when nobody would miss him. Nobody would find him.

One thing he had to do before he could do that, though. "Can you make phone call for me? Dubai. Baroness de Vilde. She's British ambassador. Ask her … whether she would see me." She had to be the only person that he could reach and that knew where Dan was. He had to tell him, sorry, but he still didn't feel, that everything was over, there were just no emotions, and he didn't want pity. Couldn't bear being touched in any way. Hoped Dan would have a good life and find somebody. He'd deserved better than being walked out on. He had to admit the guilt, before he could steal away.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter XXII: War Junkie
 
 
Warning for Readers

The following work of fiction contains graphic homosexual interaction, violence and non-consensual sex. With this work of fiction the authors do not condone in any way any form of intolerance and injustice, e.g. racism, sexual harassment, incitement of hatred, religious hatred nor persecution, xenophobia and misogyny. Neither do the authors through this work of fiction promote violence nor make light of such grave matters as genocide, any taking of human life, murder, execution, rape, torture, persecution of sexual orientation.

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All characters are fictional. Any similarities with living or deceased people are coincidental. In case of real life events, creative license has been applied. Special Forces is intellectual property of Marquesate and Vashtan. Copyright © 2006-2009. All rights reserved.

 

 
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Published 18 May 2007