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Special Forces Chapter XXIII: Longitude
 
 

April 1991, Helsinki

Vadim was let through heavy oak panelled doors into the Ambassador's office. They swung silently open to reveal a large room, elegantly furnished. The Baroness sat behind the desk, a barrier of dark, gleaming wood and brass, the epitome of natural authority and understated class. She did not look up when he entered, instead continuing to write with a lacquered fountain pen, until her aide left and the doors closed behind her visitor.

There had been days when Vadim entered a room and everybody looked at him. Not to be acknowledged, now, and then almost ignored. He could feel his heart sink, sink deeper from the not too elevated position it had climbed up to. Felt it was useless, and he shouldn't have come.

Baroness de Vilde glanced up at last to acknowledge her visitor at last, face devoid of any expression and the cool features contrasted with the friendly purple and yellow of a bouquet of flowers in a vase beside her. She studied him in silence, nothing escaped the scrutiny of those acutely intelligent eyes. She had not changed at all since Vadim had last seen her. Grey hair still perfectly coiffed, same pearl necklace, aged but finely manicured hands, similar silk blouse and cashmere suit.

The place made him feel even smaller, and he needed a lot of strength to keep his shoulders square. A conscious decision to stay upright, but his eyes down. He found it hard to look around much. As if he was no longer used to it. As if there was nothing left to see. Did not meet her eyes, but knew she was looking at him. Should be looking up, but found it near impossible.

"Please take a seat, Mr Krasnorada." Indicating the chair in front of her desk. An economic gesture, as polite but curt as the deliberate us of 'Mr'. She had called him 'Major', three months ago, had made a point of courtesy and respect.

Mister. The word didn't sting. It should have. But it had melted away, the rank, whatever title, whatever part of him had taken pride in that. Chastised. Too often. He wanted to turn around and leave, already drained of the strength that he had gathered.

He sat down. It was an order, it was easy to follow orders. Eyes glancing up to meet her gaze, at least touch it before he stared at the polished wood again. Took his hands from the rests of the chair and placed them on his thighs, elbows tight to his torso. He didn't feel at ease in his own body. It appeared too big to fill out. He should have gone out to the sea, should have cast it all off. It was stupid being here. He had nothing to offer. Nothing to bargain with. Didn't have the strength to bargain. Damaged.

She waited a moment, gaze never wavering, before cutting straight to the point. "Why are you here to see me, Mr Krasnorada?" 'Here', an embassy that wasn't her own in an office she had borrowed from her colleague in Finland.

"I need to find Dan", Vadim murmured, then cleared his throat, and repeated, because he wasn't sure it had been audible. "I need to find Daniel McFadyen. I need to speak to him." And give him a proper goodbye, at least. Can't disgrace him, too, of all people. Not like that. He felt the thought cut deep, surprised at the amount of pain that caused. Surprised he could feel that kind of pain now.

The Baroness was watching him while her gaze remained dispassionate. She studied the man, the gestures, each movement and every motion he should have done - and had left aborted.

"I was hoping you would request this." She screwed the cap back onto her fountain pen and placed the exquisite object onto the marbled surface of the desk, placing her hands together on top of it. Her eyes never lost their steadfast gaze. "I am afraid Dan is not in Europe, and while I am privy to his whereabouts, I feel unable to satisfy your request at this stage."

So, that was a no. He could go now.

Vadim felt numb, and a raging pain beneath the surface. Deemed not worthy. And who could fault her for it. He nodded, as if understanding, but he didn't.

"Mr Krasnorada, do you remember the promise I made to you three months ago?" Pausing, she waited patiently.

Promise. Passport. A job. No more freezing, no more running. Getting up to work, and leaving work to go to bed. That was what other peopled did with their lives. He didn't want to live like a dog.

"Yes, I remember." He kept his eyes down. Expected her to say something like 'forget it', and didn't know how to expect and prepare for it. They had played too many games with him. He knew nothing. Could expect nothing. They had kept him on his toes. Don't expect. Let it all happen. At least look at her, he thought, and tried. He was a beggar now, finally hit the last depth on this way down. If she made him beg, he would. There was no pride. He couldn't afford pride.

She nodded once. "It is good that you remember, because my words still stand. However, they are not a promise, but a deal that I have to offer you." She stood up, walked around the desk, unafraid of leaving her barrier of gleaming oak, shiny brass and unshakable authority. Standing close, in front of the chair, a slight figure of an elderly lady, yet exuding natural authority. "Do you understand, Mr Krasnorada? A deal for both parts." Looking at him, waiting.

She was smaller than he had thought. The moment she got up, that moment he wanted to stand. It would be more natural to stand. He looked up, met her gaze now, part surprised, part feeling the walls get closer, not sure if that was a good thing. He didn't expect anything good in a place like this. But then. She hadn't been unkind to him. Hadn't pulled any of the tricks of party or KGB, functionary, nomenclature. Didn't mean she couldn't, the sceptical part of him reiterated. And she prompted him. That was easier than come up with words and thoughts by himself. He could just respond. Nothing to lose, nothing to win.

She knows where Dan is.

Well, something to win, then. It took concentration. "Baroness, …" Whatever you're asking. Whatever you want. Nothing else to bargain with. The truth. Papers. No longer running. Because he had no idea where he would run to. "What is my part of the deal?" Not 'would be'.

Once more the nod and this unending patience. "We need to know if you are still useful." Not 'I', but 'we'. "Three months ago, I would have offered you to work for us, together with Daniel McFadyen. It would have probably been a fairly straightforward process." She paused, before explaining further. "'Us', you must understand, Mr Krasnorada, is right now a non-further explained entity. Let us call the 'we' simply 'I' for the matter of simplicity."

A shift, and she leaned against the desk with her left hand as support. "As it is now, I need to find out for certain whether you will not break under strain, if you can still function, and if you are able to fulfil the tasks that might be given you. Thus, you will be sent to attempt getting through the SAS Selection, where it will be ensured that you will be tested to breaking point - and beyond. Make no mistake, Mr Krasnorada, you will be tested." Her clear eyes rested on him, expressionless. "If you are successful and satisfy the requirements and thus instil the necessary trust, you will be considered for the work that had been proposed for a man with a military background like you, and a leaning towards the renegade." Another pause, she let the words sink.

Vadim's eyes widened a fraction, then narrowed, to hide the shock. Soldier. SAS. Mother and father and bastard brother of spetsnaz. He felt curiosity, a touch of the mystique. Tested. Useful. The words impacted on his mind, and he could feel responses build inside him, responses that had nothing to do with the leaden tiredness that bound every muscle in place as if to mock the thing he had been. Impossible. Work for the Brits, in a military capacity. That was the closest he had ever got to treason.

You are no longer KGB. Vympel. Spetsnaz. One big, gigantic waste of time and money and effort now. His jaw muscles tensed as he bit down on the bitterness. If he passed the test, he could do things he was good at. Things that didn't require much more than what he could do. Had done for ages. Had been good at.

The Baroness' voice cut through his thoughts. "I might need another man who is able to act as alpha wolf without backup from the pack. This is why, Mr Krasnorada, I want you to truly understand what your side of the deal will be and I want you to ask questions if you do not believe you understand." Silence, she waited, looking at him, allowing the time and pause to speak.

Soldier. Return to being a soldier. Whom was he kidding? He could never be a civilian. And never again serve the Soviet Union. The bleeding, dismembered corpse that was something else now, something he didn't understand. He had served the Russian people. They required him no longer.

He wanted to make one reservation. Never against his own people. But they wouldn't be that stupid. He nodded. "You need to understand, I was … part of the Interior Ministry. We were under their command."

"I know." No need for explanation. No 'I read your file', no nothing. Two simple words. "And you need to understand that especially this, which could now be construed as your weakness, will be tested. Interrogation, confinement. Let alone physical fitness. Those men will be out for your blood. You are forty-one, the ones you are competing against might be twenty years younger. Even if you successfully pass the physical tests, your mental stability will have to be examined. Again and again, and they will be out to break you." Another pause, never a change in inflexion and tone.

Forty-one? He did the numbers. Correct. He was mildly astonished. Somehow, life had just gone on without him. He remembered the Colonel, hard as rock, the fucking bastard, what, mid-forties? Back when he had been captain, and later major. Long ago. Compete. The word made his face twitch. Ridiculous. The odds were ridiculous. He was almost used up, how much could there be left? Only to fail again? Ridicule and hostility and …

"If you are deemed useful, my part of the deal is a passport, British citizenship, and the chance to meet and possibly work with Dan McFadyen. If you are not successful, I will personally ensure that you gain a permanent permit to stay in the UK and permission to work, but no passport. You will have a job, a place to live, and you will never again have any contact with anything or anyone military." Silence, allowing him time to truly grasp what she was saying between the lines.

But she had said one crucial thing. Work with Dan. Get a chance to maybe tell him. Talk. The one unfinished business he had to take care off. He'd jump through hoops and do absolutely anything to accept the consequences of what he'd done. He owed Dan at least the truth. Nevermind a quarter million pounds.

"Do you understand what I am offering you, Mr Krasnorada?"

He groaned and closed his eyes. Could feel that protective layer slip away. There was always the bullet. Always the way out. A life. Or Dan. Civilian, or soldier. Dan. Dan still was. Dan could do it with his fucked knees, and fucked hand. How difficult could it be? Might not be the strongest, or the fastest of the lot, but he'd actually seen combat. Survived on his guts.

Break you. He kept his lips pressed together. Interrogation. Stress. He didn't want to face that. He didn't want to break and cry like a lost child. Didn't … your mind's fucking you again, Vadim, he thought. Nothing has happened yet. It's an offer - you try, and are rewarded either way. That is the most generous deal anybody has ever offered you. He nodded, silently, then inhaled. "I will have time to prepare for the test, yes?" Running, diet, weight lifting, push-ups. Part of him already adjusted. Knew what he would have to do to succeed, work on a plan. The last complex thought had been how to get her to meet him.

"Yes, of course." Somehow her voice seemed to soften a little. "This is not a punishment, Mr Krasnorada, this is a deal. A deal as fair as I can make it, for both of us." Her hand moved slowly along the marbled surface of the desk before returning to her lap.

"Four weeks to train at the Royal Marines training centre, then on towards the SAS training camp in Hereford for the first part of selection. If you succeed, you will go on to two further stages, and after that … it remains to be seen."

Royal Marines. SAS. If they even had an inkling of an idea what he was - had been - they'd rip him apart. He was glad that he didn't have to stand. Four weeks. He could trust his body to get back into shape, enough so he would have a fighting chance. Just a chance to not be exposed as a fool. He nodded. Always another way. There was no better option. There was no option at all if he ever wanted to have a life again.

She took a breath, her smooth flow of words was stalled for a moment. "It is not my place to interfere with affairs that are not mine." She looked at him with increased intensity, "but I feel it necessary to ensure that a friend close to me is not going to be hurt unnecessarily any more. I assume you are able to ascertain what I am saying? I might understand your motives, the reasons behind your actions, and realise that it seemed at the time the only option, but I want you to understand in return the effect it had on this friend of mine. Do you agree that you require to know?"

Her English appeared to grow more complex, and he was almost guessing what she was saying. He had to understand how much he had hurt Dan? Now comes the punishment part, he thought. He looked at her, tried to meet that gaze again. It's enough, too much already, he thought. He had no words to justify it, no words to apologise, or explain. Futile, even thinking about it. Those were facts. He had run away.

Honoured to meet the man who Dan loves.

No honour now. "Yes, I ... require to know", he said.

She straightened and nodded. There was a long pause, a silence fit for a barrage of words, but she did nothing of that ilk, just looked at him.

"He loves you and always will, but he is too broken right now to see it." She began to move away from the desk. "If you do pass the tests, then make him see."

She turned and continued to walk out of the room where the aide was waiting.

Vadim took that with an unmoved face. Too broken right now to see it. It was the worst blow, somehow, and with that, he was dismissed.

Bitchslapped and dismissed. Left with a scrap of hope. Mercy.

He could feel his chest burn like from a long, exhausting swim, the one discipline he had loved and had never been fast enough for. Exhausted. His shoulders ran out of strength, and he leaned forward to cover his face in his hands. Closed his eyes, hoped there was nobody to see this, then again, cameras had already taken everything else from him.

After some time, he came up, inhaling sharply, deeply, like a man who had just escaped drowning. Stood, wanted to run and had no strength left to do it. He'd made a decision, he'd follow through with it. As much as it scared him.

Dan. You deserve more. The feeling of obligation was bad, a bad thing to carry around. Nothing that gave him strength, only limited what he could inflict on what self-respect he had left. Maybe he could tell Dan why, at least that. What Moscow had achieved that Kabul had never managed.

Ridiculous that there should be a knock on the panelled doors, but there was, and they opened slowly, long after Vadim had stood back up. "Sir?" it was the aide, perfectly mannered, "there are two gentlemen to escort you."

Two gentlemen, indeed. Two men in uniform, and green berets. Royal Marines, at least not Military Police.

She had to have known that he was going to accept the deal. She had to have had faith in him.

* * *

Vadim was being escorted out of the room. Few words exchanged, no necessity to indulge in pleasantries. The two Marines were taking him straight from the office towards the front of the building, where a vehicle was waiting.

Vadim was ushered inside the car, taken to the airport and onto the next flight to Britain, the necessary papers already waiting in the aircraft.

'Diplomatic baggage', one way to allow a stateless former Soviet Army Spetsnaz officer without passport nor affiliation to enter the United Kingdom.

Once in the plane, Vadim kept watching his hands, head bowed, elbows on his thighs, hands loosely folded. The sounds and smells of the aircraft. Different from the Hinds, of course, nothing quite like the beloved 'hunchback', the closest approximation of man's dream to cross a magical horse with a flying carpet, and tool of deliverance in the wastelands. And of revenge.

Vadim kept his breath steady, remembered the Hinds over Afghanistan, remembered the paras, comrades getting ready to cut lines of support, take out convoys of the enemy out in the wilderness. Remembered himself clutching a rifle, ready to fight. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the seat. Now that all decisions were made, he could rest. Sometimes he thought he had never needed rest. Ten years ago, he had hardly ever slept. A different man.

He loves you and always will, but he is too broken right now to see it.

No. He couldn't think about it. That hurt, that hurt badly, and it didn't make any sense right now. Nothing of it did. It seemed paradox, and he had dropped out of philosophy classes because he found it hard to battle problems that had no solution. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and willed himself to relax. And sleep.

The plane eventually landed near Lympstone, South Devon, the Commando Training Centre. To Vadim a place like any other, and the first camp he'd ever been to in Britain. Once an enemy, and now?

He was taken out, made to wait while papers were sorted in the guard room, an armed guard standing beside him. It seemed to take a suspiciously short while, as if they had known he was going to arrive. Then a different man appeared, a new face amongst unknown ones, gesturing to the guard to get back to his position.

"Mr Krasnorada, follow me to the medical centre for your initial check-up. We have been waiting for you."

There. He'd said it. They had known. Seemed the lady had had more faith than she had let on.

Vadim watched, then turned to look who was following, didn't think they would. But used to having handlers around him. He nodded to the man, following. Couldn't help studying the place, lines of sight, state of the buildings, uniforms, gear. Took in all the information, felt how his brain returned to processing all the data, mulling it through and storing it away at the same time.

His name sounded strange spoken in English, he kept thinking that. He'd always feel strange, never at home. Never again at home. She had arranged all this, and it seemed like a processing line, people that would work on him, many against him, probably most, and in the end … maybe Dan.

The only thing of this strange country that he knew apart from the language.

He was treated with a pronounced disinterest that appeared studied. Lack of curiosity, just British laxity or deliberate attitude? He was being glanced at by some young recruits that were passing as they marched in a straight line, getting drilled into perfect tin soldiers.

The Provo Sergeant was taking him past the NAAFI shop to a bungalow towards the East of the camp, a plaque announcing it housed the medical centre. Letting him inside, he spoke a few quiet words with a nurse, who looked fresh and far too young in her starched uniform. She nodded, left the room, to return a moment later with the announcement that the Medical Officer in charge was ready to see the newcomer, and that he requested to see him alone.

The Provost raised his brows but refrained from questioning the superior's decision. Officer was Officer, commissioned by the Crown. He gestured for Vadim to step into the examination room. "You will be given your clothes later."

Vadim glanced at the Provost, not sure about protocol, assumed it was strange or different, then nodded. Clothes. That should mean sports kit.

The room itself was as uninspiring as any medical centre's room could ever be. White. Plastic chair, table. Steel instruments, grey linoleum floor and partially tiled walls, the rest painted in the obligatory MoD magnolia white. Skeleton, charts and medical books on a wooden shelf in a corner. A desk, a chair in front, and a thin, grey-haired man in his early fifties behind it. Glancing up over rimless spectacles. One hand on a very thick file on his desk, the other indicating the plastic chair.

Vadim's eyes slipped off the tiles, didn't like tiles, and knew too many reasons why. Quick glance over the other man, then his eyes rested for a moment on the file. Now, that would be his. Where on earth could they even find that much medical information about him?

"I am Dr Williams. Please sit down."

He sat down, answered that gaze, then looked again at the file. How much could they know? How much was there to know? "Yes sir." Sir, not comrade. Oh, the protocol. Wrong country. Wrong army.

"First things first. How much English do you understand, do you need me to speak slowly?"

"I'm competent. Weak on slang." Vadim was a little surprised they even considered that. Speak slowly. A strange notion.

The doctor nodded. "I need to check a few facts. Your name is Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada? Tell me your service history in the Soviet Army, your rank, number and deployments, to the best of your memory." He opened the file.

Vadim confirmed his identity, told the short story; military and athletic career, both one, two ways to serve, officer academy and then, later, a full move away from sports and into the military. He stalled for a moment before he said the word Vympel, kept his eyes down when he said Interior Ministry. Nothing he should be saying, nothing he was a part of anymore. Deployments, missions, duties. Kill the Afghan president. Prepare the country for the invasion. Behind enemy lines, as if the fucking enemy knew its own lines or as if those were actually lines and not a jumble of improvised bullshit. Rattled down the deployments, Afghanistan was one haze of heat, hard to remember it all, he did remember meeting Dan, remembered the need and the rare encounters. Forced his mind back. Debriefed his life. Some model soldier's life. What medals he got and why. That one was easy. He remembered the official praise and paraphrased it. Valour. Above and beyond. How he'd climbed the ranks. Insanely high ranks in spetsnaz. Major.

He listened to himself and thought he should be proud, confident. Long list of achievements. Disgraced and kicked out of a crumbling place, with barely his body intact. No alternatives, no options, no way out. He thought he'd give it all to still have Katya and the children. Still have Dan. He fell silent, all that felt meaningless, children's games, pompous titles and strange adventures in a wild and strange dream land.

The Medical Officer was listening attentively, sometimes ticking an item off on the file, then turning a page, listening once more, occasionally writing in the margins and making notes, adding and verifying. Finally, when Vadim finished, he looked back up, nodding.

"Well, Major Krasnorada, you have had a most distinguished military career." The doctor gave respect where respect was due, even though it could only last a moment. Major was once, now nevermore.

"As you can see, we have a fairly substantial file on you. Our agencies have been busy and understandably so." He spoke distinctly, easy to follow. "Rest assured, some of what is in this file is entirely confidential and only accessible to me or another Medical Officer should you be transferred. We are under the Oath of Hippocrates, as you might now. Thus some of the information I have access to and, consequently, questions that I will ask later will remain between you and me in my capacity as Medical Officer in charge of your health." He pointed to a separate file, secured in an opened folder.

Vadim didn't trust the oath. Everything committed to paper was a potential trap. As long as ranks and authorities were involved, a potentially deadly trap. And the thing that sat on the desk in front of the medical officer looked like a whole field of landmines. The bridges behind him had long since burnt, and before him: this. His eyes trailed to the separate file, the one that might be even more dangerous. He had no idea how they could have amassed so much information. It seemed unlikely that the Ministry had given them all this. But if they had, he was as naked as he could possibly be. He nodded, confirming he had understood. Hoped it looked like acceptance. Nothing he could do about it, but it struck him in all the wrong ways.

"I need to verify occurrences after you were taken and charged by the KGB. You must understand that while the physical examination will bring much to light, we need to assure ourselves of your mental stability." The doctor paused, turning another page in the file. Another page, for Vadim, another life, and the end of everything he had known.

Disturbed. The word Manke had used. Mental stability. Vadim didn't feel strong, knew he was much worse for wear, worse than in Afghanistan. There, at least, he had been part of something. Belonged. Lead. Had something to work for. His family. Dan. Home. The rush to fight, to kill, to survive, get drunk, get laid. All of this was gone now, and he didn't even have the strength to miss it.

You probably thought your training was bad, he could hear the KGB officer say. They were only testing the machine, then. But I will understand how the parts work. And putting it back together is not, repeat, not a factor in this. Do you understand?

Vadim nodded again, but his mouth was dry. That was it. He felt like a bag of disassembled parts. Pieces of something more complex, more fragile and less reliable than an AK-47, scattered around in the dirt, and in pitch darkness.

"Tell me, what was done to you during imprisonment. Physical and mental interrogation techniques? Mode of incarceration?" The doctor adjusted his glasses, the look on his face neutral. "I am not here to force you through a trauma, remembering. I am here because I need to know."

The complete terror and despair defied words. Impossible. Vadim wanted to get up and walk out. Knew that that was a common response. Shame, fear.

"At first, they warmed me up." Preliminary beatings.

"I was beaten by a group of men." And kicked. Punched. Face, groin, ribs. Concrete floor, cold and wet. Tied up.

"They were instructed to be hard on me."

Break the spetsnaz. Those dogs can take pain.

"First session. Build rapport with the prisoner. Ask him whether he's uncomfortable. Establish the rules." He could feel everything drain from his voice, his face was cold.

"I was told I would be charged with treason and told to sign a confession. It was untrue, and I didn't. Treason means execution." He inhaled. "Then they became unpleasant. Started to play … mindgames. Told me they could make it easy, or not. All my decision. They would walk out with the confession, no other option." He looked at his hands and could see they had become fists.

"Humiliation, they tried to break my pride." And they did, eventually.

"The man knew me well. Knew too much. Used it all. I … was then put under strain, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, interrupted by beatings. I was disoriented. I was cold." He paused, then understood the doctor might not know what all this meant, what the procedure was. "That was in the Lubyanka. That's the KGB prison in Moscow. They told me I wouldn't be kept with other prisoners." Because I would enjoy that too much. The shower, the knife fights.

"I vanished in a hole. Nothing in there, just managed to lie down. Couldn't hear or see a thing. I don't know how long that lasted. Solitary confinement. I was talking to myself a lot." Singing. Remembering. Speaking to dead people, dead soldiers, dead family members, people that never existed. Going insane, knowing it, feeling concentration slip away. Remembering Afghanistan. Dan. Remembering everything, every kiss, every bite, every glint from a blade. Using up his mind, using up the memories, sucking them dry to not die of thirst, until they were pale. Until I thought I could no longer remember what sun on skin tasted like. Everything was darkness and concrete, including my body and soul.

"I think my ribs healed in that time." Purely mechanical tensing of muscles, thoughts of having to be able to move, maybe fight, when they came. If they came. The fear they had forgotten him. The only acknowledgement from outside was the food. Not a word. No way to measure time. Lost track of time every time he tried.

"I have no idea when I signed, but I did." Vadim swallowed. "That was the hard part. I was transferred out of the Lubyanka. The trial was complicated."

He was fairly sure he hadn't collaborated, but had had a carnal relationship with a man called Dan. Hard to remember his smell or what it felt like. Had been asked about dishonourable conduct. Had denied it. Had been asked whether he had had sex with a man. Had admitted that. Nothing dishonourable about it. He was pretty sure he had remained adamant about that. Nothing shameful whatsoever.

"They told me I'd get executed for treason." And the relief. The sheer, sweet, blissful relief. He had been so grateful.

"I had a visitor. My father. It wasn't easy." How old the man had become, how easily he cried, how he had tried to keep the accusations away, but they were in every movement. Treason. KGB cleaning out house. How things had gotten so much worse, things happened in Moscow, bad things, inflation, nobody knew what was happening, treason, the KGB had mocked him for bringing up a degenerate that took it up the ass from an enemy. Vadim could picture that, but all his father had said was whether the KGB had told him the truth. Yes, they had. Those were facts. His father couldn't understand that, but touched his hands and cried. Execution was pretty soon.

And the fairytale. Brave effort, so useless, so human. At least Dan had survived. Told his father he wouldn't suffer, and it was true. Dying was easy, living was hard. Reduced the old man to tears again, felt embarrassed because he knew the bastards were watching, eager for blood. Told his father to go home. Washed, shaved, then waited for execution.

He should have died in Afghanistan. What point was there to come back. Tin coffins were a much cleaner option. Better men than he had died. He was sure the KGB shared that sentiment.

"They brought me into a tiled room, made to kneel in the centre. The doctor was so drunk he could hardly stand." And I only hoped he'd be sober enough to be able to tell death from life, that was his only job. The official was there, looking disdainful, like he considered it all to be a complete waste of his time.

"I was waiting and had my hands tied, and then he …"

pulled an envelope out of his pocket and opened it, unfolded a piece of paper. While I was sweating like an animal and felt my body panic. Thought I would throw up. Leaving this life like that, throwing up. He stepped close, the paper in his hand, and dropped it in front of me, stepped back, looked at me. I bent down and read what was written. Execution aborted. Weeks ago. A retrial for lack of evidence.

"… told me there was a retrial. I was brought back."

Only then threw up in my cell.

"Mock execution. It didn't make sense to do that. It was about how much they despised me."

Not facing death like a spetsnaz. He wished he could have, but he was just an animal scared of death. One life, nothing after that. He just couldn't believe there was anything, any sense, rhyme or reason.

He swallowed, looked at the doctor. "They kept me in solitary prior to the trial. Told me it wouldn't make a difference. I believed them. I wanted it to be over."

Over and done with, with no memories left to keep him sane.

He hadn't been able to follow most of the re-trial's proceedings. Too complicated, too convoluted, he was too tired and exhausted after being brought in. People were shouting and interrupting each other, and he was answering questions. Often, he couldn't remember. Just simply couldn't remember.

Yes, he was a degenerate. But not a traitor. He could remember moments when he had wondered whether he could leave and go away and be something else, but the Russian people. They deserved better. They deserved his love and loyalty and service. He thought he said as much while being questioned by the judge. Lots of noise from the onlookers at that. He was accused of manipulation. Nothing manipulative about it. He had long ago stopped doing things for orders and superiors. Knew the only good thing about Russia were her people. Stuck to it. Last bit to cling to. Owed himself that much. The only thing left in his weakened mind.

Next thing he knew, two years sentence for dishonourable conduct and what amounted to corruption. Wasteful management of resources. They made him responsible for every rifle that failed to show up between being brought in to Afghanistan, and being pulled out. How ironic. They had made those two accusations stick. On top of deviant sexual behaviour.

So, back to prison, dishonourable discharge, no pension, no bonuses, his military career wiped out, no rank. A disgraced former henchman. He knew the real criminals in prison would like that a lot.

The transport got diverted, they drove a long time, first by car, then train to St Petersburg, then car again, and he never arrived in prison. Instead, he was made to step out in the snow, and told to walk to that gas station.

Too much open space around him. It was cold.

But he didn't argue.

The Medical Officer had sat throughout and listened with patience. Not a single interruption. Nothing except neutrality. Calm, steady, making notes and moving paper with faint rustling noises. He waited a long while in silence until he finally nodded. "I have information about the re-trial in the confidential file."

The sordid details and accusations. Russia was no longer ruled by the KGB, but run by corruption. The doctor's hand rested on the additional folder. "You were let out close to the Finnish border on 24th December 1990. Three months ago. I have information on your whereabouts in Sweden and we were able to verify the details."

Vadim nodded. He wondered whether Manke knew, whether they had called him. And the Russian teacher. And everybody else he had spoken to. Good, swift, clean work. Took only a few phone calls, but still.

The Officer closed the main file, pulled the confidential one on top. "You are an extraordinary case for the British Forces, but you will be treated the same way as everyone else. Consider yourself a new recruit regarding the examinations." He gestured to an adjacent door. "Go and take a shower, you will find everything necessary there. Leave your clothing and return."

Vadim nodded again, vaguely relieved it hadn't been that bad, up to now at least. Recruit. That meant physical examination. Well. Yes. He didn't look forward to it, but he'd been there before. More than once. Nothing in the man's face or eyes or posture spoke of disgust. Not even compassion. Vadim wasn't sure which of the two would have been worse.

The doctor pointed to a glass vessel. "Make sure to hand a urine sample in before the shower." With that Vadim was dismissed for now, and the Officer stood up to gather the instruments to be ready when he returned.

Been a while since Vadim had pissed into a glass vial. Paused for a moment, wondered about the stuff that had been injected into his body, all the nice cocktails, from the 'vitamins' during his first career to the entirely self-inflicted stuff he'd used to bulk up, and then the stuff that was supposed to be 'medicine' but that made him dizzy and blurred his speech. Well, that last bit had clearly not been recreational.

He stripped, stepped into the shower, shower gel, hot water, plenty of it. Couldn't quite relax or enjoy this, but kept the thoughts away. Towelled himself down. Was aware of the scars on his back that would stand out in white against the reddening skin. Did the man speak Russian?

Did it matter? He found a razor and shaved. His hair was too long, he felt dishevelled, hoped for the buzzcut, hoped to get them to shave it even shorter than what he'd seen so far. Hair too short to grab him by. Long hair is for bitches. He remembered laughing at that, once. Towelled his feet, stepped into a pair of flip-flops, and left everything on a pile. The clothes he'd worn in Sweden, the towel. Left the shower again, felt the cooler air hit his skin. Fresh.

The Officer looked up from sorting his instruments. Surprise clearly written across his face at the sight of the stark naked man. Caught himself, gestured for Vadim to come closer to the examination table and to sit down on it.

"You're certainly efficient." He remarked dryly, seemed he'd never encountered anyone before who hadn't come back out with the towel or at least a hand covering their genitals.

Vadim didn't understand at first, but when he did, he lowered his gaze. A life in sports and communal showers. Now that he mentioned it, it was embarrassing that he didn't feel embarrassed. Everything was so complicated. First gaffe.

"I'm going through the usual tests. Lung function, reaction speed, ears, nose, throat check. The dentist will take care of the teeth later. Blood for tests including STDs and HIV and other infectious diseases. An assortment of jabs, genital and rectal examination, and in addition a tissue sample for substance tests." He waited for Vadim to sit down.

Vadim went over the list in his head. His lungs were first class. Capacity far above average. Reaction speed solid, never any trouble with his senses. The teeth were alright apart from two splintered molars from a few fights. Two crowns kept them together. HIV. That AIDS thing. He'd never much thought about it, he knew Dan had, but that stuff happened to other people. And it was more likely when he did things that he usually didn't. Swallow. Take it. He didn't. And Dan was clean, mostly for lack of opportunity and maybe brazen balls to take what he wanted from anybody else. Or did he? He assumed there were no other encounters. But what did he actually know? Substances. Well. He might actually find out what the KGB had injected. Something to soften him up.

"First, I want to check the scars and epidermis."

Vadim nodded. His skin. Too tender, too scarred, and too easy to burn. The whole story written on his surface. The torture, the cutting - and why did he never consider the scars part of the torture? - the dust that had settled in the old sunburns and scarred him more subtly. Afghanistan had hated him, and that feeling was entirely mutual.

The Officer began the examination. Making notes on a clip board. Checking out the round scar in the hollow of Vadim's throat, then worked his way along the body. Noting down the numerous sun burns that had gone more than skin deep. His expression never changed, his professional efficiency never wavered. It was obvious that he had been on active service, seen the battlefield and dealt with injuries that no civilian could imagine. He started to check out the back, and even though Vadim could not see it, there was no change in his mien. Working his fingers along some of the pronounced ridges of the cutting on the lower back. The touches felt neutral, and Vadim only briefly tensed when the man touched the word on his back.

"I am not too happy with several of the scars. The tissue has hardened and cracked in places, I can see they are quite old and partially neglected. That needs to get sorted first of all." The Officer turned to the desk and made a note on another pad, before looking at Vadim. "While you are in camp, the nurse will apply a salve every morning after breakfast. Be in the medical centre at 0730 hrs. You should continue with the treatment indefinitely, whenever you can." Reaching for the stethoscope, "I appreciate that some places are difficult to reach, perhaps you will find someone to assist."

Vadim did raise an eyebrow, finding with a hint of surprise that irony had survived the KGB cellar, and bit back a comment to the end of that being a terrific pickup line. 'Want to oil my scars? I've got a nice one right down there. The doctor said I need help'. He shook his head and pushed the thought aside. He'd make do. Always had. "Yes, sir." Nice and simple order, one ritual, one fixed point established.

"Good." The Officer nodded, made another note and pushed his hand into Vadim's muscles, pulling skin taut between fingers and working his way in this manner up the arms, across the shoulders, down pectorals and abdomen. "Muscle atrophy, but beginning to recover." A couple more notes, before fixing the stethoscope to his ears. "I will hand a diet plan to the Mess chef. You require an abundance of protein and additional vitamins. The wastage had been fairly substantial, but the last few weeks seem to have put some substance back. Five meals a day, at least. I will see that it is timetabled into your schedule."

Vadim had known that, but the word sounded bad, spoken aloud. Atrophy. He had withered away. Deeply narcissistic personality, Konstantinov had said. He was mute, merely nodded. Back to eating like there was no tomorrow. Eggs, meat, lots of good stuff, just to keep the machine running, the harder he worked, the more fuel he needed to stuff down. Beef jerky. Some people swore by it. Nuts.

Placing the cool metal onto Vadim's chest, the doctor looked down at the stethoscope. "Breathe deeply." Thoroughly checking out lung function and ending this part of the examination with a satisfied nod. "Very good." The note in the file was short, no need for further examination. Another instrument from the table and then he stepped close, looking at Vadim's face. "Eyes right ahead." Working through an examination of eyes, nose, ears and throat. He took his time, but was immensely efficient.

"Time for the blood tests."

Vadim offered his left arm. "That vein likes rolling." A nightmare with a nervous nurse. One of the afghankas had nearly suffered a nervous breakdown after five attempts to pin that vein.

He watched his blood fill the plastic tubes, colour coded, thought it looked fairly dark, what a stark red in this place, hand was a lose fist, kept alternating pressing and releasing it. He looked into the man's face, wondered about his emotions, maybe conclusions, found himself wondering about somebody again. Shouldn't. That file held enough information to destroy him. Make him or destroy him. And despite the evidence, he could trust nobody. If this man decided he wasn't fit to go through this, it would all be over. He needed to succeed, but it was not in his hands. Control issues. Another term of the KGB. They had skinned his mind and shown him what lay underneath. Nothing of that had been particularly pretty. Kept silent, but did wonder. Wondered about why a man would join the army as a medic. To kill, yes, but to mend? Why?

One tube was filled after the other, carefully labelled and placed into a stacking holder. Calling the nurse from another room, the Officer handed the vials over without a word, since she already had her instructions. Some of the tests would take a few days, but no reason not to start the training straight away.

Then reaction tests, the small hammer came down every time on the perfect point, and this note, too, remained short, and so was the brief nod. "Good." The medic's glance fell onto Vadim's feet, taking each in turn between his hands and checking ankle bone, heel, instep and each joint. Glancing up over his spectacles while pushing his thumb into the ball of the foot, bones moving beneath. "Do you ever experience pain when walking?" Those feet were obviously worn, but something seemed to have caught his attention.

Vadim wanted to draw in his toes; thought of the other examination, just a few months that he nearly lost some bits and pieces there. Losing toes fucks up the ability to run. Even so, they looked everything but pretty. Just what too much walking in combat boots, the whole para business, the mountains and then everything else had done to his feet. "After about sixty kilometres or so", he murmured. "Depends on the terrain."

That did draw a reaction, a short, immensely dry laugh. "Forty miles? Most soldiers half your age wish they could say that."

"Russia is a big country. Plenty of walking." Oh, he had loved his forced marches. Vadim smirked, oddly pleased to have drawn a reaction.

Another quick note, then reaching for the box with rubber gloves. "Stand up and cough when I tell you." Waiting for Vadim to comply while the glove was pushed onto his right hand.

Vadim stood, looked straight at the wall opposite. Nothing personal, just a touch from a rubber glove. Like the touch from the stethoscope disk. He coughed, obediently. The hint of irony grew in his mind. Now, bend over. Just glad his antics had never lead to any injuries there - but they had to know that about him, the fact he had sex with men. Had had. Been a while.

The Officer was as thorough in checking the genitals as with anything else. "Good." Examination done, another note. Nothing abnormal. "Turn around and bend over. Try to relax." No inflexion in his voice, it seemed to make no difference to him if he knew that a man had had anal sex or if he wasn't aware. What difference did it make? To all intents and purposes, each of the recruits he had examined could have had a penis inside the rectum. Or a finger, or fist, or a foreign object. He'd been a subscriber of "The Lancet" for too many years to be surprised by anything.

Spreading lube onto his fingers while Vadim turned, he didn't show even the mildest interest in any of this. Bodies were bodies. He treated them all alike. Movements economical but smooth, the intrusion efficient. Checking the prostate and colon, pausing for a moment while pushing the other hand onto the abdomen. Pressure points meeting inside and out. "I need a tissue sample." Explaining what he was doing came automatic by now. Had found it helped the examination.

Vadim still closed his eyes. If anything, it was unpleasant, but he still relaxed. He could do that, that was easy. Could feel both hands move and prod, pressure, the man was strong. Tissue sample. Whatever. Just the fact the man knew what he did, had done, the fact he knew about it and there was no denying, no smoke screen, no marriage in his papers to protect him, to make that thing unlikely. He could feel his stomach tense, breath halted while this was going on.

Movements behind Vadim, but the finger did not leave the rectum. "There will be a short pain, try not to get startled." Wouldn't do to have the examinee jump all of a sudden. Cool steel taking the place of the finger, an almost seamless exchange, and the sensation of moderate stretching.

Heat in Vadim's face. He actually blushed. Oh fuck. He wasn't eighteen anymore. He had seen conscripts faint when they carried their blood samples to the next stage in the mustering. Perfectly human, perfectly normal. He was capable of more responses than he had thought he would be.

"One moment." The doctor's voice again. A few seconds before the sample was taken, a swift snip, too negligible to cause bleeding. Another second and the instrument slid out as well. "Done."

That was that. So easy, just a job like many others. Sample labelled and enclosed in a tube, ready for the nurse. "You can get dressed. A pile of clothes is on the chair in the corner." The glove taken off, thrown away, then water and soap, washing hands. "Come and sit back down when you're dressed. I want to have a word with you before you see the dentist."

Vadim breathed again, stayed turned away to give his skin the chance to unflush. Shouldn't have flustered him so much. He didn't want to show that it had affected him like this. Got dressed in the sports kit that lay there, neatly folded, it fitted, of course, and he wondered what that 'word' would entail. But if he had failed, there was no reason to send him on to the dentist. Everything was about repairing the damage, and assessing how much was left. How much of a special forces soldier remained.

Vadim felt his scalp crawl but refrained from scratching or rubbing it. Gathered himself, forced himself to focus, be awake and responsive. Sat down and looked at the man.

The Officer nodded at him, a hand on the now closed file. "It looks good so far. Obviously the results of the blood tests are not available yet, but I am satisfied with the state of your body. Remarkable for the amount of abuse it has taken." He paused, "I will recommend that the training is started straight away. You will struggle more with regaining endurance than strength, but the basis is there."

Moving both folders to the side, confidential and official, then folding his hands. "Do you have any questions?"

Vadim inhaled deeply, deeper than he had dared to breathe for a long time. He looked at the folders, then back to the man. Had, absurdly, begun to trust him, maybe. He didn't expect anything cruel from him, anything volatile, and that meant there was something that he could feel. Liked the doctor in his businesslike way. Always good to have professionals around. He thought about the question, assumed it was more than formality.

How realistic is it? Realistic enough for them to give him a shot. His age. He remembered the major, back before they had stormed that house. That man would be absolutely lethal at fifty or sixty. "No, sir. It was perfectly clear."

"Good, then I will only give you one word of advice, before you're dismissed." The Officer stalled, hand moving on top of the folder, "since I have obviously read your confidential file," hand moved to the specs, took them off and rubbed over his eyes. "I am aware that this advice is most probably superfluous, but I give it to you anyway. Your homosexuality is confidential right now. Keep it that way."

Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Exempt from the Sexual Offences Act, no decriminalisation of homosexuality. Illegal. Unwanted. Court, trial and Administrative Discharge.

The doctor nodded, "As I am sure you will."

Vadim inhaled again, kept the breath inside his chest. Fucking model soldier, apart from that one flaw.

"You are a smart man, well above average. But what you fail to understand is that you have been victimized. The masseur."

Vadim glanced up to meet the KGB officer's eye. They had dug deep, and they knew about it. After all the other unpleasant surprises, they couldn't have harmed the old man. Couldn't. He wanted to ask whether the man was alive or free or both, but he couldn't betray that much interest. It would harm them both.

"We assume you were plied with what you mistook as affection." Konstantinov folded his hands. "He probably told you you were something special. These predators can wear many masks. But that strategy would work best with your deeply narcissistic personality."

The voice wavered between 'you are to blame for a fair part of that' and 'you poor bastard' and neither sounded genuine. Vadim tensed, could feel the words slip under his skin like parasites. Predator. Special. A poisonous mix of truth and lies. How could it matter anyway. More than twenty years ago. In a world where people were more interested in his weight, height, body fat and his best times of the week, one person had actually touched him. Plied with affection. What an ugly way to speak about desire and trust.

"Understandably, you would fall victim to a man like that - one who abuses his position of trust to satisfy his appalling urges." Konstantinov shook his head. "The most disgusting thing is what he did to your mind. No doubt telling you this twisted thing was completely acceptable. Understandable, again. That is the way the human mind protects itself. We assume that we had control over an incident and blame ourselves if it was an adverse experience. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that is was not negative at all. In the words of the famous German philosopher: What doesn't kill us …"

Makes us stronger.

The KGB officer smiled. "You fell victim to a paedophile, the lowliest form of sexual predator. We can only guess how many boys he abused. But we can study the consequences very well on you. You have become a predator as well, seeking your pleasure in the pain and weakness of others. It's his fault. He taught you these things. And you were too weak to not follow his example. This will stop. "

Makes us stronger.

Plied with affection. All lies. Everybody lied. One to torture him, the other to fuck him without resistance. All lies, all subterfuge and manipulation, and the thing he'd had with Dan as dead as the obsession. Vadim looked to the side, felt raw and pained inside, felt dirty and used and brainwashed and didn't know what he felt. Or could even feel. If he could only have been the man Katya deserved.

He swallowed hard, could feel his mind shift, as intense as a hallucination. He blinked and looked at the doctor. "I … didn't plan to … engage in any kind of … that behaviour."

The Officer looked up, surprise in his face. "I don't understand?" Placing the specs back onto the bridge of his nose. "Surely one's sexuality is not a matter of 'planning'."

Vadim closed his eyes. The things he couldn't do. And the things he could. The KGB officer had believed it was something he had learnt. Been trained to respond to. Been deluded into believing that was okay.

"It's always a decision", Vadim said, voice without any depth. "I can decide to leave it." Mind over matter. It had been a while since he had felt any real desire. It had gone stale and sour like blood in a corpse. "That means, I haven't …" Oh fuck, did he have to tell him that? "Engaged in any … homosexual activity in the recent past."

"A decision?" The Officer pondered the statement, a slight nod and definite interest. "In a way, perhaps, but leaving one's nature? It will find ways to make itself known. A medical fact, and facts is what I am interested in." Silence, the hand wandered back on top of the files. "I studied your file. I know what you were accused of and with whom." Pause, "it is none of my business if you have or if you have not engaged in active or passive homosexual activities. You are not a member of the British Forces and never will be. Your sexuality is yours, as long as you keep it private."

You are a predator, just like the man who poisoned you. We will not place you in general custody with the others. Chances are you will enjoy it too much. And you can be sure that you will never again be in any position of authority or trust with any Soviet citizen or soldier. We can only guess what you did to your male child. Why your token wife left you.

Vadim felt the pain constrict his throat. "It's a decision", he repeated. "That means … I am … under control." Unlike Kabul. Unlike whole fucking Afghanistan. Unlike every day and night in the fucking Soviet Army, getting high on combat and adrenaline and the occasional rape. Until that stopped. Dan. "Nothing to worry about, Sir. I have … learnt the lesson." I'd rather shoot myself in the head than touch anybody here.

"I am not worried." Calmly, scrutinising, the doctor seemed to see more than his words let on. Paused once more until he added as an afterthought, "and your decision is wise, as long as you are under control." Another studying look, and then the dismissal. "The dentist is waiting, and the barber. You will meet your PT instructor after lunch in the Mess." Dismissed. The nurse was already waiting.

Vadim nodded and got up. Felt he owed a salute, but he was no soldier, just a hopeful piece of flotsam that had somehow found its way here. Not even that. A Soviet army salute was not appropriate either. He could feel sweat under his arms, hoped he hadn't appeared like a nervous wreck. He only hoped he could forget the interrogation one day. The pit of darkness in his soul, and that of Konstantinov. "Thank you, Sir."

The nurse took Vadim to the dentist, who did checkups and some work on a few instances of cavities, proof of the neglect. Then the barber, shaving the hair in a No 2 all over. A few millimetres, giving the perfect buzz. Then the Provo Sergeant again, waiting for him after the nurse had given Vadim a protein shake and some vitamin pills.

Vadim felt already tired, exhausted after all the examinations. Remembered, took in as much as he could, grateful for the privacy and grateful that he wasn't alone, and grateful his head was clean and shaved again. He did exactly what was asked, took the protein, the pills, eager to comply to the rules that were set down. Life became simpler again, the jumble in front of him gradually turned into stark lines without shading. Knew he'd fall into a routine and that was the way out, the way to salvation.

The Provo took him along the edge of the parade square towards the Sgts and WOs Mess and its half dozen rooms that were used as transit accommodation. The room was small and narrow, but luxury compared to a cell. A window at the far end, along the right wall a bed, and a partition that separated a wash basin from the rest. Along the left side some shelves and a built-in wardrobe. There was bed linen folded on the bed, waiting to be put on, and a couple of towels, stacked beside the basin. A can of shaving foam, a pack of razors, toothbrush and paste, a fresh bar of soap and a bottle of shower gel. Not much more a man could need.

Vadim was told that lunch was in five minutes downstairs in the Mess, before the key to the room was handed to him. The Provo accompanied him back downstairs, towards a large room with a lot of silver ornaments, medals, display cases, pictures of former glory and paintings of victories and defeat. And a line of NCOs to be fed.

Vadim queued up with them to get his food, which looked much better than standard fare in the Soviet Army and positively delicious to what had kept him alive, yet didn't smell as good as the cold marinated fresh salmon that Manke had decided he had to try. He sat down near his minder, concentrating on eating slowly, thoroughly, filling up his stomach and getting calories down. Watching the place from the corners of his eyes.

Several people were glancing at him while talking, but none addressed him directly. Lunch was uneventful, the Provo remained mostly quiet, it seemed Vadim was a non-entity as long as he hadn't proven himself yet in something. Perhaps in time.

Soon after lunch Vadim was taken to the gym, where the Provo knocked on the door of an office, then gestured him inside before leaving. Time to meet the PT instructor.

The man who walked up to Vadim stood with legs braced, arms crossed in front of his chest and grinned. A packet of solid muscle, strength and stamina. Condensed in about 5'5", reaching to no more than Vadim's shoulder.

"Right," The PT instructor grinned broadly, "I'm Smudge and I'll beast your Russian arse." Teeth gleaming in that toothy grin. "Best get started."

Vadim met the man's eyes at the promise. Beast my ass, he echoed inside. Just one of many. Wasn't much of a challenge these days, anyway. Swallowed that moment of bitterness again. Victimised. Too easy to let people trample all over him. Just don't resist. Don't even twitch. He'd come a long way.

He straightened, drawing from his height, kept his face even. No smile, no scowl, nothing. Wouldn't admit he believed the man could make him throw up all that food before dark. Fumbled around to find the bravado he had stored away somewhere in his mind. "You are welcome to try." Didn't feel it, didn't believe it, but he knew this species of soldier came without pity or compassion.

Smudge grinned, oblivious to any signs of discomfort in that Russian giant. He didn't do 'subtle' and couldn't read between lines. What-you-see-is-what-you-get and what Vadim would get was intensive PT of gigantic proportions. To Smudge's mind, anyway.

"I will try. Trust me, mate." He laughed, appeared to be constantly on the move, without even moving. More energy than a rubber ball. Smudge pointed to the long track bottoms. "Did they give you shorts? If not, happy to go for a gentle jog in those?"

Vadim's eyes flickered over the man's body, the constant motion had a way to make him restless, and next to the man he felt - and probably looked - like a plodding juggernaut. He checked the laces on his shoes, and the laces that kept the track bottoms in place, then nodded. "Perfectly happy, Sir."

Gentle jog, my arse. Five miles for a starter. But slowly, and Smudge would run each and every one together with Vadim, and he'd do each and every exercise as well. Fair was fair.

Right after the food Vadim felt more like resting, truth be told. But what he felt meant absolutely nothing, and the sooner he got back into the habit, the better. Setting himself into motion again, he found a steady pace, one that felt familiar, but had to slow down further when he could feel his pulse shoot up, and cursed under his breath. This would be hard work, much worse than he had thought. Steady was all he managed, he had no idea what his body could do or would do, and that made him insecure. His body the only thing he had always really known, and now it felt like a log of brittle wood.

After the run, he was drenched in sweat, felt sick and weak, but it was a start. Part of him felt good, right on top of the discomfort. A good long time when his mind had been completely empty, after he had shed the initial worries. No fears, no second thoughts, and most of all, no echoes and no memories. And the bliss of a hot shower. He made his bed half-asleep, had no idea whether the Brits did it just like the Soviet army, hadn't done this himself for a long time, last time on some exercise. He didn't remember, and the memory didn't sneak up on him. He dropped into the comfort of starchy sheets, and a proper mattress and slept without dreaming.

* * *

The next morning was the first of a series of perfectly regulated days. Not a single minute without schedule, and most of that spent with his PT Instructor, who had been seconded to one-to-one physical training. Smudge was a human rubber ball and bundle of good nature, nothing that could shift his humour, not a thing that seemed to annoy him. Always that grin and never out of breath.

The morning started at 0630 hrs, shower, washing, ablutions and shaving, then down to breakfast in the Mess at 0700 hrs. A selection of the good old cholesterol laden British fry-up, sausages, bacon, mountains of eggs, toasts and fried bread, with steel canisters filed to the brim with baked beans, grilled tomatoes, heaps of mushrooms and hash browns. Porridge to go with it and several cereals, coffee, tea, milk in abundance. He'd need it.

Then a trip to the Medical Centre where the nurse was waiting, applying the medication to his scars. The Medical Officer glanced in, nodded and vanished and by 0745 hrs Vadim had to be back in the gym where Smudge was already waiting, boxing a few rounds on one of the sand bags. The day started with a one and a half mile run, pushed to complete under eleven minutes, then swimming, something that Vadim's PT Instructor did not indulge in, just watching him do the leaps. Not once did Smudge blink at the sight of the scars across the back. They didn't make sense to him, except for the one: that man had been tortured and survived the ordeal.

At 0900 hrs it was time to dry up and get dressed, ready for general PT. It consisted of a couple of hours of stretching, machines, weights, jumping and circle training. Smudge accompanied Vadim all the way. At 1100 hrs the cooling down session began, consisting of climbing up ropes, hanging from others, getting from one to another and finally jumping over hurdles and and then more stretching. By 1200 hrs it was time for lunch.

Shower in the gym beforehand, then back into sports gear that consisted of polo shirt which he had to wear when in the Mess, since collarless clothing was not allowed. His sports kit had been chosen well, black and unobtrusive with the best trainers that were currently on the market. Seemed the MoD, or MI5, or … whoever else was responsible for this - if anyone at all - had not spared the expense.

1300 hrs brought sixty minutes of calm and the chance to catch a few winks, before it all started again at 1400 hrs, with several rounds of boxing sand bags and sparring in the ring. Smudge had the greatest fun, it seemed, to try and get one over the giant Russian, laughing when getting hit, and dancing around like a small monkey on steroids and adrenaline. 1500 hrs time for another round of PT, this time gentler, stretching exercises that built up to another go at the weights, when at 1600 hrs it was time for the run. Smudge started without additional load, five miles at first, then building the next day to a fuller bergan and ending the week with thirty pounds of gear in his bergan and on a ten mile speed march.

It was at the end of the week. Vadim woke up suddenly, thought he must have been screaming because his throat felt raw, that had to have been what woke him up, his own scream, and he wanted to curl up and die, a desire more wretched than throwing up in training. Not quite there, but PT was a pain, a constant pain that was building up. Just didn't have that kind of stamina anymore. Smudge seemed to know exactly how far he could push him, and always got him to do more, stretch further. He wanted to, was desperate to succeed, but it hurt like a bitch. Like he had been given the wrong kind of tool to do it with. The flesh was all wrong, and the mind knew and remembered it wasn't that hard, really.

The room suffocated him, he got rid of the blanket, wet with sweat. No surprise, but even the mattress was sweaty and it smelled bad, the kind of unhealthy sweat that was panic, not exertion.

Vadim sat up, brought his feet down, rubbed his face. Shit. His mind raced around, frantic, his breath tried to catch up, heart pounded like a raccoon trapped in a trashcan. He stood and wiped the sweat off, stared into the darkness. He could move in here. Nobody would beat him.

Liar, his mind whispered. You can never know when that door opens and they come for you. The Brits don't do that. You can never know whether you are dreaming or awake. You can never know when you are safe. You are never safe.

He shook his head. Paranoia. Mind out of control, the fear out of control. He knew it and it still affected him, still made him scared. Light. The room was under control. The room inside wasn't. Fuck you, Vadim, sober up. Fucking don't freak. You are fine. You haven't been better in two years.

As long as they allow you to …

He shook his head again, got dressed, fiddled with the laces, sports kit. He'd do some running. Aching muscles, whatever, just get out of here.

You know about the Hippocratic oath? I am responsible for your health, and you can talk to me.

The file. The secrets. The debriefing. Shit. But maybe that man could help. He left the room, headed for the doctor's quarters. Of course he knew where the man was. He'd done his recce, part of him had stored the information, and it just came back. Knocked on the man's door. It was four in the morning. But he needed help.

Dr Williams had been asleep in his quarters in the Officer's Mess. Enjoying the spacious room and the peace and quiet, away from social demands of an ambitious lady ex-wife. The first knock shook him out of his slumber, the second one made him rise, voice rough with sleep, searching for his spectacles. "One moment, please." He knew that no one would dare wake him if they did not have a very valid reason. Found specs and dressing gown, he wrapped himself in the dark blue terry cloth garment and walked to the door, unlocking it.

If he was surprised at the man who stood in the doorframe, he did not show it, not even at 4 AM. "Good morning." A friendly, sleepy smile.

Vadim returned that smile, felt sorry, suddenly, already felt better, wanted to turn round and leave and let the poor man sleep. Kidding himself.

"I am sorry", he said, focusing on speaking English and not Russian, but he was sure he had screamed in Russian. Of course. The KGB's native language.

"I … am asking for something to help me sleep, Sir." He stepped away from the door to appear not threatening, when he wanted to barge right through the door to be inside and out of sight of any potential sniper. His neck crawled with the fear there had to be a sniper. Must be. Was impossible not to.

"I think … that was nightmares. Should be … temporary." Yeah, right. "I hope I didn't wake anybody."

And you don't know what you dreamed.

The Officer cocked his head, fully awake within a few seconds, suddenly alert. "No, don't be sorry. That's what I'm here for." He looked behind him, back into the room. "Wait a moment, I get the keys for the surgery." True to his word he left the door open, allowing a glimpse into a fairly big room with bed, table, chairs, television, desk and a small fridge, all nicely furnished, before he returned with the keys in his hand.

"Believe me, if you woke anybody important with a scream you would already know about it." Dr Williams closed the door behind him and locked it, a drily amused smile on his face. "Let's go and have a cup of tea while I think about the best way of approaching the sleeping problem." He started to walk along the corridor and towards the back exit, inviting Vadim to come along, who followed. "I find that tea is a good remedy for just about everything, especially at four in the morning."

They reached the medical centre within a few minutes. "Sit down. I'll get the kettle." The doctor's movements when making the tea were as precise and economic as they were during examinations. "How are you getting on with PT?" Glancing at Vadim while pouring the water.

"I think I am getting back into it", Vadim murmured, sitting down and watching the older man make tea.

"The reports that I am getting are very positive."

The praise lifted Vadim's spirits, while there was the voice that said the man was reading reports about him. Who was writing those? And on what grounds? He should be more careful, try harder. "That is good to hear. I am glad." Positive. He could do it, was meeting expectations. He felt his shoulders relax and listened to the boiling water.

He should fix the tea, that man was a senior officer. Knowing how those had their tea had been a crucial skill at some point in his career. No career. Homosexual officer, what a joke. Crime. They had told him they could extend his sentence infinitely, just for homosexual encounters in prison. If they even let him out to meet other prisoners, which had been more a threat than something he could have looked forward to. There was this story about Afganets looking out for each other, checking and making visits in prison if they got into trouble. They had organised, or something. But nothing towards him. Maybe it had still stuck, the thing about treason.

"I can't remember what I dreamed." Vadim glanced up. "It would be easier if I did. If I knew something was hunting me, or I was falling. But it's all dark."

The doctor nodded silently, brought milk and sugar over, then the cups of tea over. One placed in front of Vadim, the other on his side of the desk. He sat down, quietly adding sugar to his tea while creating the special atmosphere of doctor and patient without saying anything at all. No reports on the desk, no paper, not even pens. Nothing. Just two men and two cups of tea.

Dr Williams took a sip, studied Vadim for a moment. "I can give you a sleeping aid for the acute period of the next few weeks, but they will neither work after that nor will they be beneficial." Silence again, looking at his tea then back up at Vadim. "In the short term, however, they will ensure you function throughout the night." A man who had nightmares and screamed, such a man would never get through any tests.

Function. That was really all Vadim wanted. Function like a machine, because that way lay redemption. No, wrong word. Peace. He cleared his throat, felt it still sore. He must have screamed badly. He warmed his hand on the tea, started to tip it against his lips and breathed in the warmth, then took a small sip, savouring the heat.

The doctor added, after several more sips of tea, "I have been working with men who experienced solitary confinement." An invitation without the slightest pressure.

So, the doctor knew. It made it easier, to think that that stuff had happened to others and that they had been talking to this doctor. That man wasn't a beginner, would, might, could understand. "I guess they were just as … screwed up as I am. In my head, I mean. The body functions. But my head doesn't. Not when I'm alone." Oh shit. That was the point. The core of it. Solitary confinement had taken that one thing from him, being comfortable with his own company. "I mean, asleep. It's like ... sharks moving under the water."

"'Screwed up' is perhaps not a medical term, but I would agree with you. Solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time causes the feeling of dysfunction. It is similar to sleep deprivation, the mind does not get a chance to calm without the influence of outside stimuli." Those long, elegant surgeon's hands were resting on the desk. "You are not alone in what you are experiencing. Solitary confinement causes the mind to turn into itself, like a cancer tumour, eating itself and thinning resistance by projecting every thought into a size, ten times bigger. Like an echo building and reverberating throughout the mind." He smoothed a non existent speck off the handle of the mug. "Your mind has forgotten how to rest."

Vadim swallowed hard, closed his eyes, fought the fucking tears and thought whatthefuck, I can't break down and cry like a four year old. He brought his head back up and smoothed his features, forced his eyes to not cry, breathed. "I just don't want to think. Tried to shut it down, but it doesn't work like that. You can't ignore your mind. It is what does the ignoring. I … don't know. I can function, Sir. I want to."

Felt a moment of panic again, like he was pleading with the KGB officer. I want to be good, I never committed treason, I swear, I promise, I will never …

Sipped the tea, fought the panic back down. Down. Nobody will harm you here. He might write a report. Or maybe he would consider it a mercy if he testified against him. "They knew what they were doing. How to target me. They tried several angles, but they thought with my … condition, isolating me was the way to go. I know why. I even know how. But I'm still in that place."

The Officer listened attentively, nodded. "You do remember what I told you. Whatever happens here, between you and me and whatever you tell me, it remains confidential. There will be no reports that are seen by anyone. This might be difficult to believe for you, but it is true. I am bound by my oath of confidentiality." A long pause, "You see, they were professionals, just as much as you and I. I am a doctor, you are a soldier, they are torturers. Highly developed. You stood no chance."

Vadim nodded, sipped his tea. No chance. Outmanoeuvred in his own mind, his own emotions, trapped within himself. "It's not an option, Sir. Failure, I mean." Living with that somewhere in a foreign country, trapped again. There were always ways to end it. He'd succeed, or die.

"Failure here, in training and selection, or failure to calm your mind?" Dr William's gaze was intense but kind.

"I think they are the same thing", murmured Vadim. He tried a smile, and it came out sad and only a shadow of his former smiles. "If I get through this, I have a place. A ... life." Breathe. Don't cry. Just breathe. "If I don't, there's nothing. I … checked my options, I don't want to … live like that." He looked towards the door. He should make an excuse and get away, get out of here.

The doctor slowly shook his head. "No. I am afraid it won't be that easy" Quietly, "I understand what you say, but getting through this will not exorcise the demons." He leaned slightly forward, "but it would give you a chance to find a way to live with those demons side by side." No miracle cure, no promise, except, "and I'm here to help you get that chance."

Vadim nodded. And why? Because it was his job? Possibly. That might be enough. It could hardly be the hope to wrangle another five years of killing and work behind enemy lines out of this body that had its clock ticking. Five years when he could have fifteen or twenty from somebody without all the trouble. "A fighting chance is all I need." Don't tell anybody I talked of suicide. But it wasn't in his hands. He drank more of the tea. "Thank you for this."

Doctor Williams nodded, opened a drawer in the desk and took out a key. Stood up and walked to a medicine cabinet behind him, which yielded a packet of diazepam. "Take one, no more. It will help you sleep without screaming." He pushed the packet across the desk, looking at Vadim with that small smile. "I have insomnia. I might be quite glad for an interruption at night." Inviting, offering.

Vadim took the pack, checked his watch. Five. He wouldn't find any sleep tonight. Maybe tomorrow. What to say. "I seem like a … meek person, doctor, but don't be mistaken. If you offer, I will take advantage." He stood, exhaled deeply. "Thanks again."

"Meek?" Dr Williams raised his brows and pushed the specs back into position. "I consider you anything but meek. I am not easily fooled nor mistaken." He nodded slightly with a small smile, dismissing Vadim back into the night with the most polite manner.

* * *

The pills helped Vadim sleep and kept the nightmares buried. If he had nightmares, they didn't wake him, and his mind felt less brittle. He didn't struggle as much with exhaustion, it was only physical. He never grew close to anybody - they didn't seem to acknowledge him much, the Brits, apart from when it was necessary, and it was just as well. The only men that mattered were the ones giving orders and putting him through training. He worked hard, mostly because that was the best way to not think or feel anything. Time ran past without reason, or fears. Sometimes, there was a turn of phrase, a sound, a face that reminded him of Dan. The way these Brits 'took the piss', as Dan would have called it.

These men were closer to Dan than to himself. Primitives, by any Russian standard, brutes, most were men that had had no chance in life and no perspective but to become soldiers and learn how to fight and kill. The common British soldier was a creature of foul language, crude humour, and as unsophisticated as they came. The PT trainer was a perfect example. But that made them easy to handle. These men lacked the refinement to understand what he was. They shrugged, and didn't give a damn.

On the weekends, Vadim continued with PT. Never left the barracks for the town and pubs that lay beyond, stubbornly continuing to work out and eat and sleep, like he had in the forest in Sweden. Cleaning up. A forest. A head. It was really the same. He found it hard to sit down and think, and he discovered another thing. He couldn't read. Back before all this, words he read on the page had echoed in his mind, he had heard them, felt rhythm and flow like breath, had seen things in his mind. He'd been able to feel words, clever puns had made him laugh out loud, and that was just one of the things that books had given him. Now, they remained marks on white. He understood them, but they never penetrated, never once sunk into him. Sparked nothing. He stared at a page, and read, and then suddenly realised he had no idea what he was reading. Or what the text was about. It wasn't exhaustion. He tried again and again, but it remained the same. His mind couldn't hold onto text. Words did nothing now, like his mind had become blind, like he could see nothing anymore. The numbness crept even into that place in his mind that he'd never thought anybody could touch. Something as basic and primal as sex - but even that was dead these days. Just like his mind didn't stir, nothing happened in his body, a most disconcerting observation. He knew, remembered it, but nothing happened. Sex was not an issue. Had moved so far away. His body didn't feel pleasure, no arousal, he didn't see any beauty in the men around him.

The loss of reading was more profound though, the pleasure lasted longer - used to. What did give him a strange kind of pleasure were the conversations with Dr Williams. The man was erudite, civilised, well-read, and, on top of all that, wise. Vadim began, against better experience, to believe that this man kept his Hippocratic Oath seriously indeed, and there was an odd feeling in the room when they had tea, talking. Vadim felt almost sane on those evenings, and he wondered whether the doctor did enjoy the company, too. He made an effort to not be glum all the time, didn't want to drag the man down with him, felt that he shouldn't pour it over that man's feet like vomit. Still, sometimes he did talk, said more than he wanted, laid himself bare like that, and the next day he was appalled that he had exposed himself that much, but there was never punishment, never chiding, like the doctor could be trusted, and his English tact forbade to take advantage of what he knew. Indeed, Vadim could forget those embarrassing things the man knew and share the company. In this place, the greatest gift.

Smudge meticulously prepared him for the PT test, so meticulous in fact that the test, when it came, felt like nothing worse than Smudge on a non-generous day. Vadim felt in control, pushed himself and easily knew he didn't have to give his utmost, just trying hard was enough. He was relieved when it was over - the Royal Marines seemed pleased, maybe also pleased to see him go, finally, and take up neither space nor effort, but these men lacked evil. This was a formality to them. Smudge was more openly pleased, however, giving him a string of abuse that betrayed he'd done very well indeed.

After another shower, Vadim was called to the doctor's office.

Dr Williams was sitting behind his desk but got up when the door opened. The specs were in his hands as he was rubbed the bridge of his nose where a red depression had formed. He smiled tiredly at Vadim. "I believe congratulations are in order." The specs went back onto his nose before holding out his hand.

Vadim looked at the hand and felt the odd urge to embrace that man, just a flash across his mind that was still abuzz with what passing meant, and what would come next. Eager like a fighting dog, all of a sudden. Instead, he relaxed and took that hand, held it for a moment. "You look tired?" It was meant to be just a stating of facts, but became a question, as his intonation twisted up at the end of the sentence as if driven by a life of its own. He looked towards the desk, assumed that that was his fault.

The doctor chuckled quietly as he shook Vadim's hand before pointing to the usual chair. Busying himself with making tea, unasked. It had become a comfortable routine, and he seemed reluctant to disturb it, even though it was within office hours.

"I can't fool you, can I?"

Well, I used to be in charge of men, was what Vadim wanted to retort, but he didn't feel the lightness. Some questions didn't need answers, and Brits especially reacted strangely when taken literally.

The kettle was switched on and tea bags dropped into mugs. "It's the joy of getting older, I'm afraid. A long time ago I had a shoulder injury and it was never quite the same afterwards. Has turned into arthritis and, as it happens, it kept me awake last night." Dr Williams shrugged one-shouldered, while glancing at Vadim.

"Oh, I see." It seemed strange that doctors got wounded, too. Vadim tried a small smile, it seemed natural with this officer. The man's dry humour allowed it. "You know about mine. How did yours happen?"

"A long time ago." The doctor smiled wrily. "A very long time in fact. I wasn't always sitting in a nice office and I wasn't always commissioned. I started out my Army career as a medic, attached to an infantry regiment, and believe it or not, but we do sometimes get wounded on duty." The kind look in his face told Vadim that Dr Williams believed he did know. His patient had seen enough enemy action in his life. "It wasn't half as spectacular as a bullet or shrapnel wound could have been, I just broke it in a fall from a helicopter."

A bit like Dima. Dima had been a hard bastard, though, probably a middling high officer by now, in case Afghanistan had let him live. "Wounds don't have to be spectacular to hurt", Vadim agreed.

Dr Williams shrugged again, one sided. "At least being awake meant I could read up on some medical notes last night. There has been quite a bit of research recently about the Falklands war and the effect it had on our soldiers." The kettle switched itself off and the doctor poured the boiling water into the two mugs, carrying them over to the desk, before getting hold of sugar and a pint of milk.

"Falklands. Not as bad as the American cluster… disaster in Grenada. But I can't say I know much about that war."

"Not many do, it was a very British affair, and we are dealing with the psychological fall-out in a very British way as well." Fishing the tea bag out of his mug and onto a saucer, Dr Williams added some milk to his brew, "please, help yourself." Indicating the condiments. "I am tasked to do a final medical exam on you, but I believe in having a civilised cup of tea first."

In a British way. Vadim wasn't sure what that meant. He figured he could just as well get used to the British way of tea. Maybe the sugar wasn't as bad when he added the milk. He stirred the mix and let it sit, not too eager to try. "What is the psychological fall-out? You won that war. It's not like Afghanistan, where we grew too tired to carry on."

"Suicides."

Vadim's breath caught. Suicide. The way out. It seemed far away today, further than it had been, but he was always aware of it. Always thought he should have a gun, just in case. Just to make sure it would work. He peered at the man, but the doctor was taking a sip, concentrating on nothing but the tea, it seemed, while staring into a void. Not caught, then. Not exposed. Not discovered.

When Dr Williams lifted his eyes he looked tired. "It is now over nine years ago and the suicide rate of Falkland veterans is rising. No one has paid sufficient attention to the whys and wherefores. No one, until recently. I happen to have caused a bit of a stir with a paper of mine the other day." He took another sip of tea, "It is time we properly study the consequences of battlefield action and related trauma."

"You are doing work on that? Suicides … of veterans?" It made sense. Vadim had seen more than one suicide. More than one that deserted that way. Nothing new. Some just couldn't deal with it. But veterans - those had gone through and come out alive.

"Yes." Dr William's answer was simple. "I am a medical doctor, but many years ago, in fact at the time when I was out of duty with the broken shoulder, I decided to go down both paths, and I am a clinical psychologist as well." Setting the mug down, he nodded at Vadim, "and in that vein, I would like to tell you, and be absolutely certain about this, that I you may call me whenever you wish. Do you understand me, Mr Krasnorada? When I give you my contact numbers I want you to be utterly clear about the fact that whenever you feel like talking to me, or if you believe that it would be advantageous for someone else to talk to me, I will be there and listen and, if I can, give my advice." He paused, as if he wanted to add something but never did.

Vadim's brow darkened and he looked at the man, unblinking. The doctor knew about these thoughts. He knew about what was going on inside him, and he'd never told him the extent of that, not enough to appear like somebody who had nothing left to live for. Why? If he walked out that door, he'd stop being the man's responsibility. "You're a good man", he murmured, eyes lowered. "Much better than I am."

The doctor merely shook his head. "We are all good and bad in our own ways. It all depends on our circumstances. You, Mr Krasnorada, you are alive and fighting for a chance - I would call that being a good man." He paused, both hands around the mug, "And I want you to have that chance. Call it professional interest, if you like and if it suits you best, or strike it up to my naïve wish of keeping one more life while so many are lost. Whatever it is, don't think I am altruistic. We are all driven by our own needs and wishes, and mine is being a good doctor, for the body and the mind."

"Wasn't it a German who said that even altruistic deeds are selfish? It makes us feel better to do good." Vadim shook his head. "Philosophy."

"Nietzsche?" The officer wondered, "it usually is."

"Yes. Nietzsche." Smiling, Vadim looked at all the books on a shelf behind the desk. Medical reviews, no doubt. He'd never have thought this man contributed to that. But there was something bookish about him, academic. "Do you have enough material to make me a case study?"

"Do you want me to make a case study?" Dr William's voice was quiet.

Vadim snorted. "I enjoyed Afghanistan. I don't dream of the things I did. My mind withstood the time there. The deaths and the futility. I did many things that would give other men nightmares, but I believed in what I did. I don't feel I did wrong. I sometimes feel something like … regret. Like I could have … contributed to something bigger, done my country … did something honourable. But I'm not intelligent enough to be a rocket scientist, or a cosmonaut, or, you know, created art. I'm not a poet, not a dancer, and I even failed as an athlete. The only thing I didn't fail in was being spetsnaz, and even that could be argued, with my … with the way it turned out." Vadim inhaled deeply. "It's not the war. The war didn't break me. The KGB broke my mind. That's nothing like being a veteran. I don't know how you can help other soldiers with my sorry example."

Vadim stood, felt sudden agitation run through his body, felt ashamed, should have kept quiet, but knew, at the same time, that the doctor had seen him in a worse state. "But if you can … and if you have enough material … I guess you might, I don't know … go ahead."

The doctor sat calmly through all of Vadim's agitation, still calm when he shook his head. "I was not talking about veterans who suffer from battlefield situations. I was talking about trauma. It comes in many guises and for many reasons." He paused, looked up to where Vadim was standing. "Do you believe you are the only one, Mr Krasnorada? The only man or woman held in captivity and systematically tortured under the pretence of war, or espionage, or betrayal, or any of the reasons a power - any power - could come up with?" His hands uncurled from the mug as he peered above the rims of his spectacles. "Amnesty International would not be such a prominent institution if you were."

Vadim inhaled, pressed his lips together, like he had to keep a scream from coming out. Felt like drowning again, knew it was his mind that fucked him again, that dark coiling mass of vipers and that was only what he could see. "Yes. Use what you have. Call it … I don't know. A gift? I don't know these people, but I know you. If it pleases you, if that allows you to do good …" He motioned to the medical journals.

Dr Williams nodded, standing up as well. "Thank you. I will do what I can with the knowledge that I have. Sometimes all it takes is one voice to call out loudly and be taken seriously." He walked around the desk, glancing at Vadim's untouched cup of tea, before looking at the man himself. "Now, Mr Krasnorada, may I ask you to undress so that we can conduct the final exam before you are taken to Hereford?"

He'd miss him, thought Vadim, as he undressed and the man checked him over, pleased with the state of his muscles, how he had recovered. Vadim didn't tense or flinch, didn't feel embarrassed. That man knew everything about him that mattered, and the thought was so very strange, that that was actually a good thing.

* * *

Unlike all the other soldiers who'd been accepted to SAS selection, Vadim was taken to Bradbury Lines barracks by military transport. Hereford, a quiet and sleepy town that could have fooled anyone into believing that the last thing it housed was the SAS regiment. The only indication, once turning off a small side lane leading into the countryside, were red and white barriers and a sign in light and dark blue that sported the sword of Damocles in flames: the famous winged dagger. Above the emblazoned sign were the words 'Bradbury Lines' and below it '22nd Special Air Service Regiment'.

Vadim wasn't asked by the guard to show his ID, an ID he didn't have, when after a few words with the driver they were waved through to the unremarkable looking compound. It was a shabby place, and nothing that anyone would have expected in association with the Regiment. A far call from what Vadim knew about Delta, or any of the American outfits. Americans always thought money was a replacement for taking things seriously. Good kit always expected to neutralise bad planning and bad leadership.

So this was the place where they created arguably the top special forces in the world. Men that got the job done. Men that could stand toe to toe with spetsnaz. Like Dan.

When Vadim got out of the Landrover, an MoD policeman pointed him to the training wing to check in, a cluster of several wooden buildings that had seen better days a long time ago. Only a few people were in uniform, and none of them was wearing an SAS beret.

Once there, they pointed him towards a long, dark corridor, where he reported to a major. 'Reporting for selection', was the term. He didn't know how much the man knew, but wondered that 'only' a major was in charge of this place, and wasn't it strange that he'd shared that rank once upon a time? He remembered that the ranks in SAS were low, and Dan had never got beyond Staff Sergeant.

Just a little later he was billeted in one of the rooms and had been issued with his kit. SAS bergan, waterproofs, maps, compasses, emergency equipment that including a 24-hour ration pack. Other guys were around, too, Vadim saw how they introduced themselves to each other, but he stayed aloof, remote for now. Most of them seemed very young, very eager, aglow with the mystique of SAS.

They were all here for one thing, to become part of the world's top special forces, to be a part of the Regiment, the Special Air Service, to become a blade and to gain a share in the glory. All of them, except one: Vadim, who almost felt like an impostor.

The Welsh mountains were not far away, and while Hereford seemed to be the sleepiest, most uninspiring place anyone could imagine, it was the Brecon Beacons that were calling from a distance. Those mountains that would have to be tackled for the first leg of selection. The landscape looked picturesque from a distance, but over the years the Beacons had claimed many lives, military and civilian. Unlike the SAS hopefuls, most of those victims had been poorly equipped, not catering for the rapidly changing weather conditions. Like other inhospitable places, like Iceland, weather could change rapidly and there had been snow in July and a blizzard in August.

Vadim listened to the stories, how an experienced officer had died from exposure once, in the seventies, and others barely managed to come back alive. A little piece of wilderness in a small, small country that bred very strange men. Men like Dan.

Vadim checked through his kit, and the mountains had to be the reason why his bergan had a 24hr ration. These guys didn't take any chances with the rough terrain, even if they were far less imposing than the parched moonscape of Afghanistan.

He sat on his bunk, thinking, bergan at his side, while the young guys milled around. There seemed to be a few men in their mid-thirties, they looked hardened, wiry, paras, Vadim reckoned. Two were especially boisterous, and a couple of the young guys clearly had seen too many bad action films, talking about it all the time, bragging, but the young voices shaking with anxiety and the need to succeed, because they believed they had what it took. And were utterly terrified of the possibility they could be proven wrong.

Watching these men, Vadim figured they were being observed, probably from the first moment onwards. Whenever he'd done training, selection, and assessment, he knew which type made it. The grey man. The one that wasn't neither the loudest, nor the most visible. It was the man without profile, the one that adapted, that had the camo in his skin and changed like a chameleon, becoming all but invisible. Flow like water, he thought, wasn't sure where that came from, maybe Musashi, maybe Sun Tsu, or one of his own officers.

The accommodation was grotty, the buildings were arranged in spider style around an ablutions block. They were nothing but wooden huts without the chance for any privacy. Soon it was time to get sheets and blankets for the bedding, and the men showed their varied skills in making up their beds.

Vadim stuck to the drill from the Soviet Army. He doubted it would be that different. He could see who bothered and who knew how to do it. There was pretty much nothing to do until 0700 hrs. Nothing, except for a large meal in the cookhouse, where Vadim continued to watch and listen. Nobody got out of his way to make contact and that was exactly how he wanted it. Still conscious about his accent, and the less he spoke the better. Staying away, apart, watching for those watching him, and just eating, breathing, and watching.

After chow, many of the guys went into town for a couple of pints and a portion of chips before coming back for an early night, while others were glued to their kit, assembling and reassembling, strumming with nervousness. Vadim did isometrics to work on his muscles, went for a nice long run once the food was halfway digested, then had a long shower, late enough that nobody bothered him. Enjoying the heat in that run-down place, and figuring there was nothing he couldn't deal with. He had already passed all these tests, had already been stretched to the limit. Had actually seen a long and nasty war. How bad could it be? Dan had passed this.

The next morning didn't come too soon for many of the hopefuls, who had been tossing and turning throughout the night. Up at 0600 hrs, fed by 0630 hrs, everyone was out on parade by 0700 hrs. Dressed in the standard combat uniform, the British flag on the left sleeve and their regiments' berets on their heads. Including Vadim, who had been giving the Royal Marines' beret, crest and badges, so that he wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb.

The tough looking Major came out of the building, the sand coloured beret of the SAS on his head, strolling out in front of the assembled lines of almost two hundred soldiers. Addressing the assembled men, he stressed the fact that the 22nd regiment would not try to impose discipline from above, since they expected every soldier to be disciplined enough to do this for themselves. That meant if they were given instructions regarding timing, they were going to meet them. All men on selection were to be equal, no matter which rank they held in their units. Officers and non-commissioned, it made no difference, on selection everyone was alike. He went on to explain that each day they were going to put details on the training wing notice board and that it was the men's responsibility to read them and to follow them, thus knowing everything they needed to know for the following day. Any serious misconduct would result in the perpetrator being RTU'd and minor misdemeanours would be fined, the money to be used for a piss-up at the end of selection. Tough luck to those who didn't make it.

He finished his address by explaining that there were only two ways to fail the first stage of selection: by withdrawing voluntarily, which included injury, or by failing to make the times allowed for completing a march during the test phase of week four.

An interesting approach no doubt, Vadim pondered. Nobody would whip them through, they had to motivate themselves. That created people that thought, planned, and had initiative. And a basic level of commitment. Vadim was aware he stood out, and tried to become even greyer. He ranked among the tallest ones, and was among the broadest ones, too. Definitely the oldest. Being invisible wasn't easy. So he'd just mind his own business.

One of the DS staff came to the front, carrying a clipboard. He instructed the men that they were going to run the BFT, the Army's Basic Fitness Test, which was nothing more than a one and a half mile run, to be finished in under eleven minutes.

Vadim figured only a cripple wouldn't make it, or a drunk, or a junkie. When the race begun, he moved into the leading group, but didn't make his way to the front. Stayed grey. Completed with hardly breaking a sweat, and nobody else seemed to have suffered much, either.

The week, from then on, was an endless succession of gym work-outs, classroom sessions in basic map reading and several medical lectures on first aid and how to look after oneself in a hostile environment, particularly in the mountains. Vadim followed enough to not draw attention, but was amazed that SAS started from zero and allowed that much time to put together the new guys. It made sense, in its way, and it did give him more time to work on the stamina, for runs in boots and uniform, and those runs were getting longer. The circuit training in the gym went on without seeming to ever stop, and Vadim's body shifted to meet that demand. Somewhere in the nerves, the little things that were not bone and muscle, somewhere there was a memory of what it was like to be tough and near indestructible. His body remembered, and seemed to ponder things, ingraining lessons and movements, saturating himself in strength and resolve even during the breaks that were filled with lecture upon lecture.

The week was obviously designed to thin out those who had never really had full intentions to make it through selection, but merely to boast to their mates that they'd given it a go. The first week also gave to those who stayed on the basics of surviving in the mountains, skills and endurance that was needed for soldiers who had not come from the ranks of Paratroopers, Marines, or one of the Infantry units, where tabbing long distances and map reading under pressure were almost daily occurrences.

Nothing special. Hardly noteworthy. Vadim's mind fully concerned with measuring his own progress in the fitness area, keeping his mind focussed like memorising movements as if for any competition. He'd fenced a hundred bouts in his mind without getting up, now he was sitting there, in his chair, running and marching and 'surviving' even when listening to a lecture. Listening, above all, to their version of English, and their terms, turns of phrases, about 'birds', and 'bints', and whatever they called things. Feeling into the language, mimicking it in his head, speaking nothing aloud, but thinking to himself in English. Not the English of their literary masters. That gutter trash English that would mask him, and make him another shade greyer.

At the end of week one it was time to get into the mountains and get real. That Sunday, the trainees paraded outside the Training Wing with their bergans, belt kit and packed lunch, boarding the trucks for the first time, to head into the Welsh mountains. The day's training was part run and part orienteering exercise, to sift more of the dead crop out of the bunch. Each of the soldiers had six checkpoints to find, an easy task for anyone with knowledge of map reading. The run, though, was different now. Only over eight miles, but the terrain was hilly and wet, with a fast pace set by the DS. A group of about thirty men managed to stay close to the DS, while everyone else lagged behind, unable to gain enough points that were needed for this exercise.

Vadim held on, 'brought up the rear', the last in the top group, watching the others, having found a pace, while his feet and legs and most of all hamstrings remembered mountains, and sliding half-controlled down. Every now and then, he glanced over his shoulder, but the terrain made it near impossible to keep eye contact with the guys behind. It was misty, the kind of heavy thick mist that was the closest thing to rain, the ground heavy and saturated with last night's downpour. A bitch, but still nothing special. Another test run, another prod at resolve, nothing else. Obviously created to make the blade-to-be wonder whether this was actually what he wanted to do for the rest of his maybe very short life. Vadim looked around, that green and grey desolation, that special smell of this country, the way the mist settled on his face and hair and hands, his throat, and thought this was really Dan's country. Just as wide and generous, in a way, a way that made him breathe freer even when he was up on the ridge gulping for breath.

That was not all, though. The next day the real test after the first week took place. It was the infamous 'Fan Dance' march across Pen Y Fan. Set up as a race, it proved to be a no-nonsense tab with a 40lb bergan and a distance of 14 miles up, across, and down the other side and back again over the highest peak in South Wales.

The men were split into two groups of equal size, one on either end of the mountain, supposed to meet halfway in the middle, which meant that neither group had an advantage over the other. It was either a steep climb at the beginning, or a more leisurely-looking incline, but since each group had to do each end at some stage, it did not matter where to begin.

Vadim's group got the 'easy end', the DS told them to just 'hang in there', whatever that meant, Vadim thought probably take it easy and steady and keep the strength for when it mattered. The rocky surfaces were the bitch, traps for hands and feet, mostly. And injury meant RTU, or, in Vadim's case, worse. Returned to the trash heap.

He stuck to the DS, again in the middle of the group, not too eager, no reason to risk anything. Anything more than he already did. Steady would do it. This was just a mountain. The DS ran off at a blistering pace, and Vadim got the impression that, like Smudge, he probably did this for fun, or at least enjoyed this so much that he could just as well do it only for fun. He wondered what these guys did if they needed to stretch themselves. Run a marathon in combat boots, bergan on his back, he supposed.

Vadim kept up, stuck to the guy as if his life depended on it, saw how he negotiated the territory, and took his clues from him, while keeping his head down, not cursing, not bitching, not cracking stupid jokes. Waste of energy and focus.

He could see the mountain in the distance, part of it, and the misty weather had held; the top was covered in mist, hard to tell exactly what was ahead. Uphill, he adjusted the straps on his bergan, shifted the weight up high on his shoulders to not have to drag the bitch behind him, and kept mostly upright.

Eventually, they reached the top, and figures were moving in the mist, fast, following their own DS. The others ran at them at full pace and Vadim realized that they'd try and make them budge off the path. Both would cost strength, losing room up or down, didn't matter, and when Vadim's turn came, he stood there and gave the guys coming towards him his best, baleful stare, hands open, shoulders squared, ready to fight. That made them not try it, and Vadim returned to his pace, feeling an ache creep up from his legs that told him he'd used up his immediate reserves.

But it got worse on the way down. At that speed, with that rough terrain, every uneven rock hit his lower back. He could feel his teeth rattle, and the disks between his vertebrae, and his knees started to hurt from the strain, too. He gave his details to the DS at the turning point, needed to remember for a second, too rushed to think very clearly at that stage, wanted to finish the run, not stand and do this.

The steep climb from the other side was a real ball breaker with the added nicety of one false horizon after the other. He got to the top, again bathed in mist, hurting, breathing hard, when he saw figures in the mist, moving. That was his group. The last leg. The last bit. Vadim gritted his teeth, forced his body to keep relaxed under the strain, to keep the breath flowing freely, and began to run in earnest, to get back as soon as possible. He wasn't quite sure how many points he had and how much he had scored so far, but giving a little extra now would be good. He only stopped after completion, dropping the bergan and laughing, breathlessly. "Stupid fucking mountains", he muttered to himself.

After the 'Fan Dance', twenty-three men jacked it in and seven were injured, and in total, at the end of the first week they had lost sixty-two of the original number of hopefuls. Either through injury or voluntary withdrawal.

In Vadim's room, two bunks remained empty.

From then on the men were no longer purely fighting for themselves, but those who remained in week two were split into small groups of ten to fifteen men to spend their days walking over the Brecon Beacons.

That evening, several of the soldiers took the opportunity to check out the pubs in Hereford, while others stayed inside, for the umpteenth time checking and re-checking, packing and re-packing their bergans, allowing the anxiety to grow. Vadim stretched, and ran, and did isometrics to the point when he had got rid of the pressure they were starting to build in him. He wouldn't be broken by that kind of strain. He'd had too much of it. Compared to Afghanistan, this was a five star holiday with fitness programme.

If anything, he regretted that he could feel the fact he'd been out of it for a while. Ten years ago, he'd have passed with flying colours without hurting afterwards. He saw the nervous and miserable guys and wasn't sure how to break their tension. They wouldn't listen if he tried. He wasn't their officer and he couldn't tell small stories to keep the morale up. He didn't connect to these men, not like he had connected to Soviets, his troops, Lesha, Dima, and the others. Platon. The kid would be just as miserable if he were here, in this situation. And nothing to do, for him, except be the guy that wasn't actually here, that wouldn't truly become visible, fighting the battle in his mind, like going through the motions in fencing.

The next two weeks saw an increase in pressure, which kept on relentlessly and grew in demand. All of the men had to be at the trucks at 0600 hrs each morning for the two hour drive into the Welsh mountains, while never being told in advance where they were going or what was to be expected of them.

Fine. In Afghanistan, things had been improvising so long that Vadim didn't actually care. It was to screw their minds and keep them flexible, breaking out of the routine. Vadim wholeheartedly agreed. Spetsnaz exercises were a worse bitch. Being told they'd only go out for two days and then something went 'wrong' and they had to fight for two weeks. That was far worse than being left in the dark.

The only information they received was given the night before on the notices in each accommodation, which detailed what kit was to be brought for the next day. It would always be the bergan with 40lb weight with one extra item: a drill rifle, which added more weight and was always to be carried at the ready. The men were not allowed to sling the weapon over a shoulder or to stuff it down the side of their backpack to carry it more comfortably. This made sense, and made all this feel more natural to Vadim. He fell back into the other mind, the one he'd used for combat, for patrol, and couldn't help but look for places and angles of attack. Sniping country. All this was wide open. He had to reign in his mind and remember this wasn't actually war, not truly, no casualties. But it came back, like the lion resurfacing somehow, sensing the air, tasting dust that wasn't there. Senses more alert than they'd been for ages, melting away the dull lead that had covered him, and it was like coming up for air.

Despite it being April, each morning, when boarding the truck, it would rain and be miserable and cold. The clever ones would get their sleeping bags out, pile on top of each other in the back of the trucks and grab a couple of hours sleep in the warmth of their doss bags. The others, who couldn't be arsed, would sit in the cold on the benches, shivering throughout the ride, while their strength and determination got further sapped with every day, ground down by the physical and mental strain. Vadim, though, sat there, rifle on his knees, sleeping bag around his shoulders, minimizing exposure, and resting while being alert. That half-sleep, half-rest that he'd cultivated in enemy country.

Once the trucks stopped it was hard to get out from beneath or within the warmth, knowing that the day was going to be a repeat of the day before and an even more painful one at that. The rush of cold air, saturated with water, attacked every part of a man's body the moment they climbed out of the sleeping bag, but once they'd jumped off the truck, jarring bruised joints and blistered feet, it was time to get the first grid reference and get going.

There were several shades of pain, the dull, throbbing, stiff pain that seemed to forbid movement, and the creaky, reluctant pain when Vadim actually did move. But once he got moving, that pain warmed up into a strangely comforting sensation that became part of the body like an arm or a leg or the damned bergan.

Before they set off, the DS called each man, asking for the exact location, expecting to be shown the correct spot on the map, before proceeding with the first grid reference. Taking a compass bearing, Vadim and the others tabbed off as fast as they could to get to the checkpoints and go through a set routine. Some of the checkpoints were in specific locations, like a bend in a river or a certain rock formation. Others were in the middle of nowhere with a DS tucked away in a small tent, huddled in the warmth with a hot cuppa, communicating through a partly lowered zipper in the tent while noting down each man's details. They were expected to rattle the data off, no matter in which condition they were. Vadim felt bitter envy at the tea, and yet strangely enjoyed stretching himself like that. He could still deal with this, still had a heart left, still more spirit. Not winning was the goal, at the moment, it was not losing.

The faster a trainee was on each day's run, the better their chances of getting onto the first truck that went back into camp. If the vehicle filled up fast, there was a chance to get into the few bath tubs by piling straight in, dropping bergan and kit beside the tub and soak luxuriously in the hot water to ease the pain in muscles and joints. Vadim rushed faster just for that comfort, while part of him mocked himself for that primal response, but after being wet and half-frozen, nothing was like a hot bath. Just the easing of pain was delicious.

After scran in the cookhouse it was time to find out who hadn't made it that day, as the DS on duty went from room to room, telling the occupants if they were still in or if they got either a warning or thrown out of the course immediately. Each time it was quieter in the rooms after the DS's round, until the rumour mill started up once again, with most of the men wondering aloud who was going to get binned the next day. Vadim didn't move a single muscle when it was somebody else's name - and he didn't expect for his name to come up. He was doing alright. Unless he got injured, he'd be alright. Most guys were at breaking point, he could smell it, see it in their eyes, and see some were hanging on with sheer balls, while their body already rebelled.

The end of week two saw another murderous timed march: 14 miles through Radnor Forest in Southern Wales followed by 21 miles the very same night, across the peaty bogs. The pain was keen. Worse than keen. Stumbling across this forsaken, nightmarish landscape, falling, getting back up again, all the time cold and miserable. Vadim hated the country, hated the cold, and it seemed almost a good idea to stop and not be bothered, why put himself through this much pain. At his age? After so many years out of it? He still went on, pushed the thought away, worked, he'd get there and if he'd crawl, he'd get there.

A lot of the hopefuls gave up that night, several with fractured legs and twisted joints, while Vadim was just completely fucked afterwards. He felt every single month he was older than thirty, every day, every hour and wondered, without true emotion or connection, how Dan had made this. What had driven Dan through this, what motivated a man for this? What had driven him?

Week three started in a similar way as the one before, now with even less men, since a third of them had been binned or withdrawn voluntarily. The weather took a sudden turn for the worst, with blizzards in April, snow and plummeting temperatures, which made the terrain even more treacherous than before. The men were told to buddy up with two or more others, to cut down the risk of getting lost and to ensure if someone were to take a bad fall and get seriously injured, there would be help at hand. Vadim didn't take the initiative, could see them gauge him, knew almost certainly what they were thinking - he'd made it this far, so he was tough, but still he hadn't become 'matey' with anybody, so he was the last one to 'buddy up', which didn't cause a stirring in him. Made sense, and he wasn't too keen on this, either. He'd prefer to be on his own, pull his weight, do his part, but still keep a low profile.

Timings, of course, were slower in such hazardous weather, but the only way to gauge one's time when coming off the mountains in sleet and snow, was to judge how many others were already waiting in the truck.

By that week, some men were in agony because of their feet that were covered in blisters, Vadim could see the bloody socks clinging to their feet. He'd stuck to keeping his own dry, wear two pairs of socks, and he still had calluses from Afghanistan - and kept them. Leaving his feet to hang out of the bath when he got a soak and took meticulous care of them all the time. Feet can kill you, as the officers used to say in training. Even the toughest guys couldn't ignore their feet falling apart. Marching was bad enough, and the weather, and the strain, but blisters? They made the difference.

The end of week three saw another ballbuster of a day and night tab, this time over snow covered bogs and across the mountain ridges, which resulted in several more men dropping out before test week started.

Few of the hopefuls could imagine that there was possibly anything worse that could be asked of them, but test week started on Monday and was a series if marches similar to the ones before, but longer and with more weight. They culminated in a murderous 43 mile march while being forced to keep off roads and tracks, not allowed to buddy up with anyone else. While every man was on their own they were also still against the clock. This was when Vadim felt he was getting back into it, mostly by seeing how much better he did than the others. Finally on his own again, with just his thoughts, and his breath misting in the ice cold air.

The first march was 12 miles with 35lb bergan, the second 14 miles with 40lb weight, the third 17 miles with 45lb and the fourth 12 miles with 50lb and only a sketch map as guidance. The harder they pressed Vadim, the more he responded to it, simply no other way, despite the aches. Like everything, one got used to abuse, to torture, and whenever he thought he couldn't carry the rifle for a single mile further, he thought of that first week with Dan, busted up, heat-dazed, choking on the weight of his own arms. And somehow, there was another mile in him. Somewhere.

The fifth and final endurance march was 43 miles carrying 55lb. The men had between eighteen and twenty hours to complete it. They were tabbing within a points system, and the more points the safer their survival on the course and the completion of the first stage of selection, which would allow them to go onto the jungle phase. Vadim chose to ignore the word jungle. He knew plains, forests, mountains. He had no idea about jungle.

The last march was the final breaking point for several of the hopefuls, who gave up or got injured in the foul weather, or who did not have the stamina to continue. In the end, out of the initial almost 200 men there were only 35 left who had made it through the first stage of selection. Vadim among them.

* * *

The next part of the course Continuation Training, a build-up period that lasted four weeks before all of those who had passed the first stage of selection were taken to Belize and into the jungle phase, which took another four weeks.

Weapons handling was taught, everything that was being used in operational theatres around the world, as well as lessons on tactics, basic living and surviving in the jungle. All the time the gym continued to be as demanding as before. The men learned drills for patrols of teams of four, which would carry out tasks such as sabotage, reconnaissance and laying automatic firing ambushes. In such small patrols the emphasis was on laying down continuous fire while breaking contact with the enemy. Direct confrontation was to be avoided at all costs. In other words: Unlike the Americans who'd dig in and fire for all they were worth, SAS learnt to run away. Brilliantly down-to-earth.

Vadim stuck to the book as if he'd never been trained differently, only changing things and adapting his own experience when he could get away with it and when his tricks were actually superior. Still laying low and keeping his focus on gym and stamina, knowing it would likely only get harder, and he needed every bit of preparation - not allowing himself to wonder what would come after. They seemed harsh, but generally fair, not cruel, no bastards, it all proceeded with a straightforward no-nonsense approach that appealed to him. Even without him wanting to, Vadim started to almost … believe in all that, started to accept that all ranks were equal and other ridiculous ideas the Brits sometimes held. No wonder Dan was such an irreverent bastard.

The patrols carried out live firing drills in patrolling ranges that had been cut out of woodland. Targets that popped up in different distances, which they had to hit by firing two rounds, then getting down to cover. When the DS, still a constant attendant, shouted 'stop' or 'change' another man would become lead man of the four-man patrol. These drills were carried out endlessly, teaching the hopefuls more about weapons than they'd probably ever known before, apart from Vadim. He'd trained with those weapons, and it took only a refresher to re-familiarize himself. Everything else was still second nature. Eerie, how much it actually was part of him.

Contact drills were a part of the routine as well, which meant that within each patrol every man had to get to know the other very well, to be able to rely completely on each other. They had to make sure everyone in the patrol was proficient, and most importantly safe, when carrying out those drills. And if any personality clashes showed up once they had reached the jungle, it would be too late for the shit not to boil over.

The classroom sessions continued throughout the month, numerous lectures and tests on jungle related subjects, such as hygiene and safety, medical techniques, signals and Morse code. Even a crash course in languages, which was purely designed to test the candidate's academic ability: SAS was not just highly trained killers, but clever highly trained killers. While three didn't make it, Vadim found this the easiest part of the lot. He knew his Morse, he knew enough in several languages to get by. And he was amazed to learn that hardly any Brit spoke anything but their gutter trash English. What did they spend their time with in school?

But the strangest thing was that the one or two Brits that actually did well in languages seemed to be almost self-conscious about it, as if they had to apologize … a certain unease that betrayed that these guys didn't consider education a worthy or even honourable thing to have.

* * *

With 32 men left from the original 191, all of the hopefuls and a number of DS staff made their way to Belize, to enter the jungle phase. The small Central American country faced the Caribbean Sea and was one of the many former parts of the British Empire. Each patrol, consisting of four men, was to live, sleep, eat, exercise and survive together, with one DS attached to it, who would always be somewhere, observing, but never where the men might expect him.

They were flown into the country, taken a further way in by helicopter, before the men were let out to march the rest to the camp in the very midst of the jungle. The air was so thick that Vadim had to drink it, and he was soaked in sweat the moment his feet touched the ground. His heart pounded so hard that he felt dizzy, as his body struggled with the heat, and he was half-dazed as he followed the others through the thick vegetation. Needing all concentration just to keep walking despite his body rebelling against the humidity and the heat.

It took five hours to reach the point where they met their DS. The sun could hardly be seen through the thickness of the leaves, but its effect was felt keenly, as the patrol had to stop every fifteen minutes to drink. Vadim's pulse had transformed into a pounding headache that made him miserable quickly. He suspected several of the others didn't feel any better, and hoped he'd adjust, but he also suspected that it would be especially tough for him, being the oldest. And however much he drank, sweat just kept pouring out of him, trickling down his neck, his temple, his throat, and all he could do was wait for it to be over, while marching.

According to the briefing, it would take them a week to get used to the territory and the climate, and then it was another three weeks to go. They learnt how to survive the hostile environment, how to put up pole beds that kept the body off the ground and thus away from dangerous wildlife, and were introduced to a wide variety of insects, snakes and other animals. They had to realise what was edible and what would prove poisonous.

Throughout all of this the patrol had to constantly remain tactical with the only mode of communication allowed was whispering, while weapons and webbing were to be worn at all times. Each morning, at least forty-five minutes before dawn, they had to stand to, which meant getting up in total silence, getting out of the dry clothes, zip them up in a plastic bag and putting the damp and cold kit from the day before back on, no matter how hard or uncomfortable it was. The kit was packed away without making any sound, before each man had to move to a certain guard point, standing at attention, guarding the jungle, face out, until daylight approached. At some point, it stopped being hell, and was merely tough. Vadim learnt to understand the men he was 'out on patrol with', and it wasn't all that different from patrol in Afghanistan, if in a worse environment, if anything could be worse than the mountains.

Many of the days were spent on ranges, live firing while under constant pressure and scrutiny from the DS, never quite knowing where he was. He might be hidden close by, while the patrol was standing to in the light of dawn, observing if each and every man was silent, meticulous and fitting into the group; or he might be standing by during the firing, ensuring that each man would fit into the Regiment, since it operated in small numbers, often behind enemy lines.

One of the men had obvious leadership experience, just the kind that people looked to for decision-making, and Vadim stuck to his resolve to remain invisible. He wouldn't challenge that position of authority, it would mean too much scrutiny, even if he had the feeling the other guy assumed he might - being the oldest of the lot. But Vadim fell back into the ranks, never questioned, even when he was fairly sure the guy was improvising, sometimes offering a piece of advice, which seemed to be taken as a challenge, but Vadim remained completely non-aggressive. At some point, that guy started to listen to him and would look at him when giving what passed for orders, and Vadim would be the first to do as told, which relaxed everybody. Quite likely the guy had no idea why Vadim was doing what he did, and Vadim didn't clue him in, instead filled the position of the second-in-command, which was ceded, and expected of him. Once that was settled, the patrol got on perfectly. A smooth, small machine that worked without a hitch, without a flaw, and Vadim began to enjoy it. He was close when any of the guys was struggling with something, never asked, always perceptive, always ready to lend a hand. He felt like the invisible strings connected with him, around him, and were at his disposal. Leadership by example, without becoming the actual leader.

The stress was a constant, like the pouring sweat. Exhaustion taxed them heavily, heat and humidity made every movement anguish. On patrol, they always had to keep off track, pretending there'd be enemy ambushes or booby traps, so that they continuously moved through primary jungle whenever they had to be at a certain location. It could take up to six hours to move five hundred meters.

Too intense. When it got too bad, the heat, the humidity, living and feeding like an animal, only speaking in whispers, Vadim paused, breathed, and thought of times when he had broken down. How he'd broken under Dan, how Dan had nearly killed him, and he'd betrayed himself, his unit, his country, his family, only to not die in that horrible, messy way. This then, this jungle, was only half as bad as that, he could stand the wearing down, the chipping away, he knew he had more strength than that. He'd been there. He'd broken before, had been set, and healed. Recovered himself. This was bad, but it wasn't breaking him. He could see the stress flicker in the other guys' eyes, though, and while they were lying in wait, breathlessly whispering, he could suddenly feel a shift. The guy's name was Chris or something. Christopher, Vadim reckoned, and suddenly Chris' dirt, sweat-streaked face distorted, and Vadim could just feel this was the most that the man could bear. A quick glance around, then Vadim crawled over, swiftly, touched Chris' shoulder, and could feel the man vibrate under the strain like a steel cable close to tearing and whipping around. The man's breath was fast and became irregular, shallow, quick, hyperventilating from the stress. If he freaked, that would be bad - Vadim couldn't tell whether the DS was watching or not, but he assumed he was.

Vadim caught a glance from the leader, then looked into wide stress-diluted pupils, could just see that the man was about to scream and bolt, and grabbed him by the shoulder, speaking in whispers to him, calming him, reminding him how far he'd come, told him to breathe, fucking in and out, while the rest of the group held the position and kept their heads down.

It was a huge battle, fought in silence, the man's self-control against the overwhelming desire to scream, to escape this slow torture, escape the infernal noise of the jungle, all those birds and insects, and eat like a human again. With concerns beyond staying fit and watered, and Vadim suddenly felt the man's hands on him, around him, pulled into the desperate embrace of a man who'd come too fucking close to breakdown. Despite the fact that he didn't want to touch anybody, he understood this was different, comradeship, and the man clung him to draw strength from him.

If you knew what I've done to the likes of you, thought Vadim, and patted the man's back, kept speaking in a whisper, while the tension built up as if Chris was about to break into tears, doubtlessly at the limits of endurance, while Vadim told him to keep breathing and that they were comrades, and all would be good, just a little while longer.

Eventually, Chris pulled himself together, and Vadim pulled back, but stayed close to the other. He had no idea what the DS would make of this small episode. They never knew when they'd blown it, or if they'd blown it. There was no set of rules to cling to, and Vadim assumed it was all about seeing them perform as a team under pressure. Their leader did well, and Chris, despite that small episode, was an exceptional soldier.

He kept at the man's side, watching him - and the others - for any sign of mounting stress, for any indication of break-down. All the time performing his tasks, working as hard, if not harder than anybody else, feeling strangely responsible for these younger men. Like he'd felt for Platon, but without the embarrassing, vicious, destructive needs. He had no needs. For all intents and purposes, his body had stopped to desire and was just a machine these days. Under control. No control necessary. He didn't see anything attractive in any of the men, not the way that he used to feel. He could work with them, and touch them, and be touched, and it was nothing, held no meaning, no double edge, nothing that would spill blood. It was a relief and he caught himself smiling for no other reason but the fact that, for once, in that half-light, noise, stress, sweat-drenched heat, he belonged.

Days had turned into weeks and the pace of the course increased as did the pressure. None of the men knew how they were doing, as it was impossible to judge. While the DS was always somewhere, at the most unexpected places, he would never let on how well any of the men conducted themselves. Neither were any of the patrols aware of how their mates were faring in the other patrols, since they never met each other until the very last day during the breaking up of camp which saw a squadron sized 'attack' on an enemy camp, which came as a shock and a relief, as the pressure mounted and then exploded. Vadim fell immediately into age-old reflexes, fighting hard and giving no quarter, expecting no quarter - this had become war, the war against fear. He wouldn't be afraid anymore.

Finally, they made it out of the jungle, and were picked up by trucks, including their kit. Vadim found it impossible to relax just yet, expecting another attack, an ambush, nerves still taut with stress, but nothing happened on the way back to the army base.

The men in his team exchanged stories with the others, Vadim merely listened, having nothing to tell, keeping his own counsel, and people moved away, gave him space, as if he belonged and yet didn't belong. They must have caught his accent, thought Vadim, refusing to speak more than a few words at any given time, and knew that the others caught how unnatural that was. And despite all the bragging and the nervous laughter, no one had any idea if they had passed or failed. The results of the Jungle phase were going to be announced when they had returned to Hereford, but Vadim was confident. His mind was still intact, more so than it had been before, like the machine just came back under pressure, assembled like an assault rifle. Under fire, under pressure, not something one thought about. Only lacking the parts that could cause trouble. If anything, improving the base design.

Once back in Britain and in camp, all 32 men were gathered in a lecture room of the Training Wing, eagerly awaiting the results. They had got back the previous night, few of them finding much sleep, too desperate to know - whereas Vadim slept like a stone, knowing he'd given all, hadn't frayed under pressure and likely performed best mentally. The only thing they could hold against him was his refusal to take command and control, but he doubted they knew he had been an officer. Or maybe guessed it, but had no inkling of an idea he'd been spetsnaz. The odd pride in that accomplishment was still there, and he had to hide it among these children that had never been drilled the Soviet way.

On that Wednesday morning, the Officer in Command read out the list of failures, telling the men to hand in their kit. Out of the 32 men who went into the Jungle phase, only 11 remained. Vadim's patrol had lost Chris, the soldier who had almost had a nervous breakdown, and the leader. Despite being an experienced man he had taken on leadership without leading fully, dependent on another's approval. But Vadim, Vadim had made it, and the remaining 11 men were told to report for the start of the Combat Survival phase at 0800 hrs sharp the following Monday after several days of rest.

Vadim was stunned to see those two men go, joking, but clearly shattered about their failure. A sudden barrier went straight through the group, creating two factions. That of those who had made it and those who had failed. The atmosphere was poisoned with envy, regret, the guilty feeling of triumphing when mates were left behind. It was an eerie feeling and Vadim forced those men out of his head. They were casualties as far as he was concerned. He'd not made them fail, he had done what he could to support. These were gone now, history.

He paid a visit to the doctor, where he got some antiseptic tinctures for all the insect bites and leech wounds, it was a miracle where insects could bite and suck blood, and he half-amusedly expected some kind of nasty fever to hit him. Checking his weight, he had lost a good one and a half stone, his face looked completely different to how he remembered it, but he still didn't look half as bad as straight from prison.

Despite the fact that he swayed on his feet, he forced himself to clean up what he could and give himself at least a proper shave now, which took forever, and reminded him suddenly of Dan. In his half-apathetic state, he could imagine Dan standing behind him and steadying the blade for the shave, maybe mocking him for it, in a tender way. Vadim stared into the mirror, could almost see Dan, almost feel that body's heat close, those strong fingers on his wrist. His vision suddenly blurred and he put the razor down, set both hands onto the basin, fingers splayed to support him, and hung his head.

Dan. Dan was the reason for all this, but Vadim wasn't quite sure now how. Why. Or even what. Dan deserved the truth. He had repeated that in his mind, over and over and over again. Dan deserved the truth.

His eyes burned and Vadim drew a deep, shaky breath, knew he needed to calm, to steady himself, there were always eyes watching. He could almost see part of the DS in the undergrowth, a silhouette, a rustle, a smell, all deliberate to let them know he was there. He caught a real motion behind him and shook his head, wiped over his face, saw Chris suddenly appear. Bergan over his shoulder, looking at him, and Vadim looked back, speechless.

And he still didn't speak when the Brit dropped his kit and pulled him into a tight, matey hug. "You'll make it", Chris said, voice rough. "Thanks, man. You deserve it - six months, and we'll have a beer, eh?"

Vadim nodded, oddly glad for the touch himself, glad that Chris had accepted it and had his sights set on the goal. "Yes."

"Good." Chris grinned, if pained, and lifted the bergan back up on his shoulder, stepped back and waved, then headed out.

Vadim barely managed to not peel the skin off his face with the razor, too tired now to be remotely coherent. Sleep. Food. Recover. Allow his body to heal and his morale to build up again.

It was silent in the barracks during the next days. Most guys were sleeping or eating, and even the boldest and most ingenious didn't manage to combine the two, try as they might. Vadim found it hard to set his priorities during the first two days, then later food became more important. Anything that wasn't brackish water and some hapless wildlife was a delicacy. And that included the British ruined tea and the heavy, fat-dripping fare that kept these men together.

Monday morning saw not only the 11 remaining men from Selection, but 39 others at the start of the Combat Survival course, because the course was open to all branches of the Armed Forces. It took place in the vicinity of the Regiment's barracks and the 50 men were once again split up into groups of four men per patrol, to be taught over the next month how to live off the land, trap and hunt game, and build and live in makeshift shelters that were constructed from pieces of wood and found material.

The learning phase took three weeks, a steep curve for those who never had to survive in the wild before, and those were most, with Vadim one proficient exception. Compared to what spetsnaz did, this was a walk in the park, but Vadim felt he could use that walk in the park only too well to heal and recover, put some of his weight back on and supplement all this with running, isometrics and stretching.

During the last and fourth week the patrols were be out in their four-man groups, let loose on the run to survive off the land for five days while being chased by a hunter force that consisted of paratroopers aided by hunter dogs. Fugitives who did not get caught during the five days of evasion and survival were to get themselves captured and taken away for a 36-hour interrogation phase.

Just before that test started they were stripped naked, which made Vadim impossibly queasy, but it was worse when they were physically checked, every orifice, and he had to remind himself that nobody could tell he was gay, and that he hadn't taken part in any homosexual activity. Of course, the scars would be noticed: the one close to his balls, the Cyrillic letters down his back. They could read he had been tortured once, but he answered no question, allowing them to check his body and shutting everything else down, fear, shame, doubt. It was about finding any goodies that would make the five days easier.

Each man was given an old army trench coat, a pair of boots, a small tobacco tin containing a couple of wire snares, a condom for holding water and other bits of survival equipment, as well as a rough sketch map of the area, and a bin liner.

Everyone was desperate to avoid getting caught, because the punishment was severe. Those who did not manage to evade capture were kept in an open pen, no matter how bad the weather was, and kept in a stress position for four to five hours. After that they were released to carry on as before until the inevitable final interrogation. It was crucial to avoid early capture to conserve mental and physical strength, or breakdown and failure during the final phase was all too possible.

Vadim carefully considered the odds. He didn't want to take control of the four man patrol, at the same time he didn't trust the leadership of that pretentious fuck who was too keen to show that he knew everything and certainly didn't want to hear any kind of dissent. That one hadn't been an SAS hopeful and hadn't made it through Selection so far, so there was no glue to keep them together, and Vadim lost him and his crony at the earliest opportunity. Staying together was not part of the game plan.

Instead, he and Andy (that was probably Andrew) covered a lot of ground, as much as humanly possible, using all tricks Vadim knew and Andy seemed fine with that, every now and then grinning at him and speaking in that strangely musical dialect that Vadim had learnt to distinguish as Welsh. Just speaking his vowels differently, less flat, and actually half-rolling the 'r' which to Vadim sounded like a much prettier form of English.

One night, they were sitting together after a long, long march, and Vadim still felt restless, staring up to the stars trough the branches of the tree, suddenly seeing Andy's teeth gleam.

"What?" He nodded towards Andy.

"What are you planning?" Andy pulled a little closer to whisper. "You are thinking."

"Sorry." Vadim grinned back, with irony. "I'm just tired of running."

"Tell me about it", whispered Andy. "Fuck those bastards."

Vadim gave a toneless laugh. He liked the man. "What I'm planning … are you ready to be punished?"

"Does it involve giving those guys a hard time?"

"Aye." Vadim grinned, suddenly enjoying this. "It does. They are paratroopers. Paratroopers are arrogant bitches. I have an idea where they are going. I'm planning to teach one a lesson."

"You know we're still supposed to hand ourselves in?"

"Yes." Vadim shrugged. "But it would be a change of pace to hunt instead of being hunted. What do you say?"

Andy laughed. "You crazy fuck. I like it. Let's go."

The paras were confident. Driving men before them like sheep did that to their egos. Vadim moved in a circle, flanking, with Andy unwavering near him, giving support and pulling every trick in the book. Vadim knew it was madness, he did expect a sound beating to follow that stunt, but at the same time, he could feel his mind fray under the stress of being hunted, not finding much rest if any at all, and he figured he needed to change something, win the initiative. So, he flanked, Andy helped by laying a trail for the fucking dog, and they attacked straight in a thicket, grabbing man and dog and carrying both off, tying up the bastard dog, and administering a sound beating to the struggling, panicking para, for the fun and the hell of it, the best way of stress relief. And vanished before the guy's comrades found them.

This was an altogether different game, with the hunters concentrating on Vadim and Andy, and Vadim told the Welsh guy that he should break away and cover his own ass, but Andy had nothing of that, telling him he was only around to learn some more tricks.

The hunt was elating, especially as they managed to repeat the stunt. Pure reckless energy, blood pounding with fierce joy at how dangerous they were, and Vadim found himself staring at the man, the comrade, suddenly realising he felt a careful, watchful desire, a dull ache more than the raging fire of years ago. That troubled him, troubled him a lot when he watched as Andy slept for just an hour, on the run, barely catching the absolutely necessary rest and sleep, always driven on by Vadim's resolution to not get caught. The KGB had caught him, nobody would ever again get him alive. And the fact that this man shared the danger, the stress, formed a bond that he had not expected.

The time ran out and they still hadn't been caught. Andy high-fived him, stood up from their hiding place and stretched, for once not afraid to move out into the open. "Let's go, then." Checking the map for the place of rendezvous, the march back was far less straining than the actual hunt, and Andy seemed fairly light-hearted, whereas Vadim felt dread impending. One thing to be caught, another to hand himself in. But that wasn't prison, wasn't bad, just another test. The final test, he hoped. Only that kept him together.

"You're a queer bird", said Andy.

"I know." Vadim looked sideways at him, this man had grown close in the last five days, felt like a brother, or a comrade, trusted him on some level, and wanted him, which neutralised the trust. He didn't want to touch him, and did. He didn't want to wonder about him, and did. "But I can't tell you."

Andy shrugged. "Whatever. You just don't strike me as very English."

"True."

"Coming from me, that's not a bad thing." Andy gave another laugh and slapped him on the shoulder. "Let's see whether those fucktards break us, eh?"

They were gathered in one place, where they were promptly blindfolded, and, Vadim supposed, separated. For a moment he feared for Andy, which distracted him from the fact that he'd normally fear for himself, but that strange closeness ran deeper.

He was stripped again, and there was again dread, didn't actually think anybody would even consider rape, but felt so fucking vulnerable with that blindfold. Worse, it brought him right back into prison and he could feel himself panic. They made him wear some kind of loose pyjamas and once covered, Vadim focussed on fighting that fear while he was taken into a place that was ice cold and filled with a deafening 'white noise'. Nobody spoke a word as he was prodded into a stress position: standing up facing a wall with legs and arms wide apart, then at some point, later, difficult to keep track of time, they forced him down into a squat position with legs bent and arms pulled behind his head, which hurt, but gave him the pain to focus on. It was cold, and seemed to grow colder every minute, and the white noise made it hard to concentrate at all, a steady pressure on his nerves. Then it was time to change into another position and Vadim fought hard against the panic, knowing they couldn't actually harm him, couldn't actually torture him. But the fear stayed, gnawing on him, whittling his resolve away.

He concentrated on reminding himself of the rules. They had been briefed about what they could and couldn't do. Absolutely not signing anything. That was easy. Vadim had signed one confession, he wouldn't do it again, certainly not in a few days or hours worth of whatever they'd throw at him. They could only give name, rank and number, and the response for everything else was "I can't answer that question". But the first part posed a problem. Vadim didn't have a number. He didn't, technically, have a rank, either, and giving his name meant that they could find that out. Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada wasn't exactly the most British name around.

And he wasn't sure about the rules for lying. He could make an identity up, but he had no idea what methods of checking they had. He didn't even know how many digits that number was supposed to have, and he didn't feel ready to face any jibes at his nationality - and the lack of it. It was too fucking obvious what he was, any more clues and it would scream into their faces.

That left him with the second option - go hard-assed all the way. 'I can't answer that question'. That was important. Not being a smartass, not allow them to rile or confuse him, keeping his wits together. He kept repeating that sentence in his mind, in English. I can't answer that question. Over and over, imprinting it in his mind, using what he knew about psychology: imagining it in bright red, Latin, letters, imagining it sung, spoken, screamed. He busied his mind with finding variations on the sentence - what would it smell like? If it was the title of a song, what would it sound like? That calmed him down, kept his mind away from the fear. If he made this test, he'd be okay. He'd be alright.

After several hours in the ever-changing stress positions, Vadim was hauled up to stand and led into a room where the blindfold was taken off. By now, the sentence was firmly ingrained in his mind, and he felt strong, bolstered by the simple trick. He wouldn't forget this, not even if they actually went tough on him.

Behind a table in an otherwise completely bare room sat a tall and skinny man who was glaring at the 'prisoner' through small metal framed spectacles before lowering his head to start writing something down.

Just what he was writing was a mystery. Impossible they knew anything yet. If they knew, he would have been reading the file. So what was the man writing? Probably a shopping list. This was designed to show the man was in control and had authority. Fuck him.

Vadim was left to stand at attention for at least ten minutes before the man spoke again in a sharp, clipped voice.

"I know why you are here."

Brilliance. So do I? So what? This is an interrogation course. You play interrogator, I play prisoner, and I could snap your scrawny neck before anybody could stop me.

Not looking up, the interrogator continued to write while talking, no mean feat, unless it was the shopping list, after all. That thought amused Vadim. Milk, porridge ...

"You're Special Forces, you cunt, and I know that you are a Paratrooper, because your mate has told me."

Only that no mate knew anything about him. Vadim had never left anything open, not even to Andy, who, hopefully, was smart enough to not step into any similar trap. Strictly speaking, he had no mates. But they assumed he'd had, and that was certainly right for everybody else. The paratrooper stuff was amusing, even though Vadim felt a momentary impulse of "oh shit" - that had always been his cover, that and 'military advisor'.

"So, you better admit to it, or you make it hard for yourself, you pathetic piece of shit."

Vadim's jaw muscles tensed as he looked the man squarely in the face. No question had been asked. He didn't have to answer, so he wouldn't answer. He was only mildly curious whether the man would bring on more heat, or this was already the extent of it.

The pen came abruptly down onto the table as the man stood up, once more glaring at Vadim, a glower that was returned in equal measure. "Don't you try playing games with me, we know everything already. That mate of yours, he sang like a bird and you," a spindly finger pointed at Vadim, "you're nothing but horseshit and a waste of breathing space."

Still no question. Vadim raised half an eyebrow to see if that would rile the interrogator, and did his utmost to combine curiosity, obedience and a back-handed challenge.

With surprising speed, the man came from behind his desk, flying towards Vadim, where he started to yell abuse right into his ear, insulting him in every manner imaginable, down to calling his mother a whore. Vadim stood there, staring straight ahead. Merely tensing his shoulders and keeping the large, red letters in his mind, trying to shut out the voice like the roar from a tank or artillery.

But the man never asked a question.

The insults seemed to take forever, before the interrogator got the guards to take 'the piece of scum' away.

Vadim was again blindfolded and hoped they didn't notice that the blindfold scared him, worse than the interrogation. It shut out most things he could concentrate on ... then they brought him back into the ice cold room with the white noise and once again he was put into a stress position, this time kneeling with his arms behind his head and shoulders pulled back as far as it was physically possible. His every move continued to be watched by the guards and if his arms dropped down even a tiny bit they were immediately brutally yanked up without anyone ever uttering a word.

His shoulders hurt, his back started to hurt, and he remembered Dan doing this to him, the rope had choked him, and he'd been in peak physical condition, much better than he was now; on the other hand, he was thinner and less muscled now, more wiry than he'd ever been, which worked to his advantage, at least he kept telling himself that.

The pain didn't stop, his back knotted up, radiated out into every limb, and he had no idea how long it took. It was a cold miserable place, and his mind started to respond to the white noise. It caused more than discomfort, real, true pain, and the guards weren't exactly gentle when they pulled his arms up again, which felt like they tried to dislocate his shoulders. This made his weak shoulder hurt, the one that had actually been dislocated. Mountain. Dan. Heat. Heat dazed, stumbling through rocks with his legs tied. He knew that had been worse, but he'd been thirty then, and not used up, not fucking broken. The breaking had happened later. He shifted again, but every movement was agony with the tensed up muscles. Remembering what had given him respite once, and hoping he didn't break the rules. He moved his head in the direction where he assumed one of the guards stood, and murmured "I need to piss." Wondering if they'd force him to do that into the pyjama trousers ... likely not.

He was yanked up again, which made him grit his teeth, and taken to the loo, which, above all, allowed him to roll his shoulders and stretch his legs. Bliss. He had no idea whether he hit the urinal or whatever it was, but didn't actually care. Took his time - every tiny thing counted, every moment that lessened the stress. These guys wouldn't take it far. They wouldn't. They adhered to some kind of rulebook, and that was their weakness.

Then back again. Waiting took a long time, with no food nor water and several more painful positions, one of them where he stood facing the wall with legs and arms outstretched in a search position, while holding himself up by his fingertips. The noise grinding on the nerves and the stress wearing on the body. The interrogation wasn't actually the hard part. The interrogation was a walk in the park. Firstly, that room was warm, and secondly, his body could recover, but most importantly, these didn't leave him alone with himself, wondering, doubting, but gave him an enemy to concentrate on.

When they took him out again, he was led into a different room, which seemed unlike the earlier interrogation room, similar to a hospital ward. Once the blindfold was gone, Vadim saw a small round man with a red face, bloated like a pig, and a nurse in fully starched uniform, who had to be in her fifties and was sternly looking at him with a large syringe in her hand that seemed more designed for a horse than a man. He didn't believe they'd put that into him, no way. He looked the nurse over, dismissively, from head to toe, then smiled softly at the syringe. Needles? A common fear, but this was exaggerated. He had plucked rubbery leeches off his skin for weeks. Syringes at least were hygienic and didn't wriggle.

"Your name!" The man barked, who was dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck, hands sheathed in rubber gloves. Nice touch. The gloves alone promised another body cavity search. Vadim thought they should have done this as a dentist's room. That was an even worse fear for most.

Even though spoken as an order, this was the first proper question. Well. Time to give them something for their money.

"I can't answer that question." Softly, to downplay what accent he had left.

"Where is your injury." Narrowing his eyes, the man came closer, forced to look up as he barely reached to the height of Vadim's shoulders.

"I can't answer that question."

"You are here because you are sick. You have been reported. So, don't take me for a fool, where does it hurt."

Vadim was amazed they considered this little mind game effective enough to intimidate somebody who'd gone through Selection. It was bizarre more than funny, this guy probably acting on some film featuring evil Nazi doctors and assuming that would faze him.

"I can't answer that question."

"Speak up!" The man barked, "Why are you here? Louder!"

Oh shit. If he didn't answer, that was admitting a weakness, and that would allow them to home in on it. "I can't answer that question." Somewhat louder, throat tight because he knew he wouldn't pass for native. And that made his accent probably worse.

"You pathetic little weakling." The 'doctor's' face got redder as his voice rose. "We'll find out anyway." He waved to the nurse who came closer, now with a clip board in her hand, pen poised. "Take all your clothes off."

Vadim hesitated, eyes briefly meeting those of the nurse, but her stare was fixed without any expression onto him as the 'doctor' continued to shout out his orders. "All your clothes."

Vadim stripped, his guts tightening. The Cyrillic on his back. The scar even closer to his balls. Fuck. He should never have allowed that, should never have allowed to be marked like that. While Dr Williams was too polite to comment, good manners were clearly not necessary in this room. He only hoped both these Brits followed their country's time-honoured tradition of complete ignorance regarding any language that wasn't English. Dan was an exception. A very exceptional exception. He straightened and stood there naked, forcing himself to stare straight ahead.

The nurse was making notes throughout, then walking slowly around Vadim, as her pen scratched over the paper, and he felt his shoulder blades moving closer together as if his body was trying to protect itself from her stare. His body was tense, muscles taut, and he suddenly found it hard to breathe. This stopped being funny.

The nurse had not said a word while the man sat down at his desk, as he took over the clip board. The nurse stepped into Vadim's back and he had to resist turning around, or glancing over his shoulder with more effort than he could mask. The tensing of his stomach muscles was only too visible. "Closer." The 'doctor' expected Vadim to stand right in front of the desk. "Legs braced." Vadim closed his eyes. They wouldn't. Would they? How far could they go? Obeying, though, but he knew he betrayed stress now.

The interrogating 'doctor's' fleshy hand moved right between Vadim's legs, cupping his balls and pressing upwards while squeezing, hard. Vadim further tensed his muscles and he felt like jumping and staying completely still. No comment on the scars. It meant nothing to them. Nothing at all.

"Cough." Ordering, while the hand gripped even harder, as if the 'doctor' tried to fist the tissue back into the body, making Vadim breathless and nearly choking the cough inside. Fucking hurt. He didn't want the guy touching him. Medically yes, whatever, but this went over his capacity to ignore. Hurt.

Fucking stop it!

"Does that hurt?"

Vadim's first response was to snarl and tell him what the fuck he thought he was doing, another part of him wanted to crawl back as deeply into his skin as possible, and those conflicting urges gave way to a sentence written in red letters all over his mind.

"I can't ..." bear this, "answer that question." Vadim tensed more, expecting to be kicked or hit now, shamed and humiliated.

"You are bringing this onto yourself." The 'doctor's' fat face was sweating now and the anger made his face glow.

"Bend over!" The command was sharp as the man stood up once more, hands on the desk, leaning forward so that his face was close to Vadim's. He could feel the spittle spray as the 'doctor' shouted out, "are you a liar, then? If you don't tell us where it hurts, I assume you are a liar, and we hate liars." The voice got even louder, yelling into the other ear, "do you know what we do with liars?"

Bend over. Like any of the sick games in the army. Vadim's disbelief vanished, his heart raced and he began to sweat. They wouldn't. Throat so tight he was unable to speak, unable to protest, clinging to that sentence, the one thing he was allowed to say. You're bringing this upon yourself. "I can't answer that question." Needed to speak it to mask the fear that was clawing at him.

Rubber-gloved hands, much smaller than the interrogator's, were suddenly on Vadim's bared arse, roughly manipulating muscles and flesh. It didn't matter they didn't go any further, Vadim's whole body tensed into immovability, eyes closed, sudden tension nauseating as his stomach jumped into his throat, gagging him.

"Spread your legs, you useless, sorry excuse for a soldier!" The man yelled at the top of his lungs, right into Vadim's ear.

They are. Vadim believed they would, his mind lurched, and he opened his eyes, forcing the memory away of being helpless and outside his body, of the animal fear that they had drilled into him. He stared at the man, whose beady eyes narrowed, with hatred and fear raging inside, so intense, his mind was blank, while the 'doctor's' face twitched. But Vadim obeyed the order, mostly because he had no strength to resist. Knowing in his heart they could and they would, and there was nothing he could do about it. No resistance. No mercy. Teeth clenched to not scream at the bastard.

Those hands remained on his arse, the sensation of rubber digging into clenched skin while moving quickly, as the 'doctor' shouted at him once more, "what is your name, scum!"

"I can't answer that question." I can't. Because if you make me speak, I'll rip your head off. I'll kill both of you. And get done for murder.

"Where do you hurt, loser!"

Snarling, Vadim repeated the red sentence, the one that felt like a dentist's drill and tasted like bile. "I can't answer that question!" shouting on the last two words, brought too close, anger and outrage replacing the fear, fully. They would do it, and then he'd kill them. Life was simple now, a place of simple choices. Endure, or die. Kill, or die inside. Again.

The pressure behind him increased, a body came close, too close, pressing against his own while the 'doctor's' eyes flickered to a spot beyond Vadim, when suddenly the door flew open and two guards came marching in without a word. The presence in Vadim's back vanished that very second and before he knew what happened, they slipped the blindfold over his eyes. It was tied and his arms grabbed and pulled into his back as the guards pushed him forwards, away, to move once more, while not a single sound was uttered by anyone until he had reached the door and the 'doctor's' voice was heard a last time, yelling after him, "you'll wish you had answered my question, you sorry excuse for a man!"

Vadim struggled for a moment, wanted to turn round and go at the fat bastard's throat, but the guard held him and he knew they'd drag him away and give him a beating, just because he'd been disrespectful, but everything was better than having a body press against him, getting … getting … What? What had that actually been?

And once more into the freezing cold and darkness. They threw the pyjamas at Vadim and untied him, and he dressed, burning with shame and fear, just expecting to be kicked and beaten up, knowing he'd get badly injured in the process. That would RTU him, which meant nothing, exactly nothing, because there was no unit, no life, no nothing. He would have crawled into some space, protect his guts from the onslaught - which never came. They made him sit and forced his hands onto his head, legs stretched out in front of him so that he sat in a very upright 'L' with his elbows wrenched back behind his ears. The white noise was deafening and the cold kept creeping into his body and every bone, as they changed his position after an hour of wrenching him back every time he threatened to sag.

The fear became a dull dread sometime during that hour and the adrenaline burned out, leaving him completely exhausted. He wondered why the guards had come in. Did the 'doctor' have any way of alarming them? Did they think he'd flip? Did the bastard actually read him so well? Was he that easily read? The position was agony, exhaustion turned into the desperate need to sleep, as all thoughts blurred and the red sentence blurred with them. He had no idea anymore what he was doing here, or why, just wanted to rest and sleep and be safe. He was hungry and thirsty, thirsty enough for his kidneys to hurt, but above all, he wanted to sleep.

The isolation went on for hours, until he was finally pulled up from one of the stress positions and once more walked into yet another room. If it could be called walking. His body seemed to be numb, he hardly felt it, hardly felt anything at all anything in his body or mind, just moved with where he was dragged.

The room was so hot, the heat descended like a suffocating blanket. When they took the blindfold off him Vadim struggled to straighten up and stand to attention. He was presented with a middle aged man, distinguished looking, with grey temples and dressed in a fine suit. "Please, at ease, man."

Vadim slumped slightly, grateful for that small kindness, but at the same time his hackles rose at the man's appearance. He didn't like this, didn't like it at all. Too much like Konstantinov. Too much like any twisted father figure he'd ever had. Different approach. He was so fucking tired.

The gentleman steepled his fingertips together and let his pale grey eyes rest on Vadim. Pulling his thin lips into a fake smile, he sat and merely regarded Vadim with a scrutiny that did not seem to miss even the tiniest thing. And Vadim had no strength left to be grey, didn't have the strength left to resist much.

"What is your name?"

It was wrong to speak, even if it felt like a relief. It would be over if only he spoke. "Can't … answer." Vadim shook his head. "That question." Wanted to add "sorry", or a "sir", but was too tired to bother and knew he wasn't allowed to say anything else. And if it killed him.

"I see." The man leaned back in his chair, looking Vadim up and down. "Is that because you don't understand the question? We can get you a translator if you'd like." Another thin-lipped smile, "if that made it easier for you. Would it?"

The accent. Fuck those bastards for working it out and fuck himself for betraying it. Vadim's guts twisted and coiled again; the man likely knew what language he usually spoke, or had spoken, back in the days when speaking had meant something. His eyes fixed on the interrogator, he was too tired to react to the bait. He wouldn't be here if he didn't understand English. And that of the man was polished and educated - which made him fearsome. Vadim breathed, deeply, and forced himself to study that face, every line around the eyes, then the eyes themselves, tried to see the viciously destructive intelligence that had bested him … the type Konstantinov had harboured. He wanted to defend himself. He really did. "I can't answer that question." Evenly, and this time not even slipping on that "I", that Russian didn't need and frequently omitted. He didn't speak Russian, and would never again speak Russian.

"Can't, or won't?" The interrogator blinked once, taking his time, as he studied Vadim's face. He seemed to take in every bit of fatigue, every twitch of pain, each line of exhaustion, and Vadim looked at him and studied the intelligence behind those eyes, perceptive, awake, rested, and intent. Four bad things.

"Tell me where you come from."

"I can't answer that question."

"Why are you here?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Who sent you?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Who gave you the orders?"

"I can't answer that question."

"What is your name?"

The questions came in rapid succession, as fast and precise as a machine gun, and Vadim forced his mind to blank, knew he had to answer, and answered by clinging to the red sentence that blurred, but was still readable. The man's stare was hard to bear and he looked at a point to the side, near the temple, concentrated on one hair that stood away, hardly noticeable. Not even think any of the answers, not in his state, no, no thinking, obeying without giving in, without taking a single step back. There was no room behind him, just a cliff.

"Who are you?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Where do you come from?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Are you thirsty?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Who sent you here?"

"I can't answer that question."

"How old are you?"

"I can't answer that question."

Where were you born?"

"I can't answer that question."

"Would you like something to eat?"

"I can't answer that question."

"What is your name?"

"I can't answer that question."

On and on and on, again and again, in a never ending barrage of questions, designed to trip up and confuse the weakened mind and to wind their way into the victim's brain until his resolve broke down. Vadim struggled against it, keeping to the one sentence that was just as monotonous, just as bad, but still was his only sanctuary. He had no idea how long the game lasted, he was tired and confused and felt weak and pathetic, everything blurred, while the interrogation went on, seemingly endlessly.

Finally, after an eternity, the man stood up. Nothing had ruffled his countenance and even now, when he pushed a piece of paper and a pen towards Vadim, his voice sounded exactly as it had done throughout. Never raised, never altered. "Very well, then. In that case sign here and you can go."

Vadim's hand raised - and clenched. Wrong. Trap. No.

Sign the confession, and it will all be over. That is what you want, isn't it?

He looked at the paper again, couldn't even read what was written on there, if anything at all, then looked at the man again. He wanted to sign, but Konstantinov would have won again. And he had no points to give away. He shook his head, once.

"What," the man's pronunciation betrayed upper class and education, "can't you write, man?"

"I can't answer that … question." Vadim watched impassively as the interrogator picked up the pen himself. "Here, let me help." Pushing it into Vadim's hand, which refused to close around it, like it was a glowing coal. He'd never again sign his life away. Never again. No way.

"Just a few crosses will do. Just go ahead and sign and there will be food and drink waiting, and sleep." The interrogator even pulled his thin lips into a pale smile.

Crosses. Treating him like an imbecile. Vadim dropped the pen and shook his head again. Instead stared at the red sentence in his mind, tried to make the words larger, nail them all over his mind. Whatever insult. Whatever trick.

The man stood for a moment, searched the face in front of him, before he nodded to someone behind and beyond Vadim. The next moment he was grabbed by hands that held his arms as the blindfold came over his eyes once more. He hadn't noticed anybody else in the room and this came as a shock, again, but he didn't struggle for long, just an instinctive reaction.

The same routine, the same room, the same noise and the same ice cold air, as well as the same positions of pain and utter discomfort which went on for several more hours. He had no idea how long it took, tried counting, tried anything, too exhausted to do much more than think of things he'd learnt by heart, like the pledge back in the Soviet Army days, to serve his country with honour, but that burnt his mind. He recoiled, disgusted and shocked that he would fall back onto something he'd cursed so often, pledges he had broken, and that had, ultimately, broken him.

Whatever memory he groped for, each one was wrapped in barbed wire, and he kept repeating old army songs in his head, because he couldn't remember much poetry, or literature, spending the time while his mind underneath panicked like a frantic rat in a burning cage. It would never stop, he was back in the Lubyanka and it would never stop, and he had to tear his mind back into the present, with a supreme act of will.

He had no idea how much time had passed, or would yet pass, and how many more interrogations. He wasn't sure he could take a single one now, not now, not ever. Thought, with what felt like desperate irony, that it was good that Chris had been sent home to his unit - if the tension in the jungle had nearly made him break, he didn't stand a chance of coming out on the other side of this one.

Just when Vadim thought he could not take any more, and when his body threatened to collapse under the strain of pain and exhaustion, he was hauled back up onto his feet once more.

He entered the warmth of a room but it took a while, during which he stood as best as he could to attention, before they finally took his blindfold off. In front of him, draped over a chair, was a highly attractive, dark-haired woman, dressed provocatively in an elegant gown with a low neck, revealing an exquisite cleavage. And, as she shifted with a smile on her beautifully made up face, long, shapely legs came into view, matching the rest of her perfect figure.

What. The. Fuck. She could have been from Mars, or anything else that didn't make any sense. Vadim didn't get why she was here, thought for a moment they'd taken him into the wrong room and this was for the officers' entertainment.

"You look exhausted." She smiled, "they must be treating you terribly." Her voice soft and warm with a most pleasing Irish accent, as gentle as her dark eyes, as she pointed to a chair close to her. "Would you like to sit down?"

"I can't answer that question." Saying that didn't make any sense, but at least it had become a reflex. He had no idea what this meant. Or why. Then, staring at her and the way she sat there, he realised that probably every man out there had to find her irresistible. She showed enough to be that, at least to every red-blooded male. Only, he wasn't.

"No?" She pouted, "oh dear, what a shame, and I would have so liked to have a chat with you." Shifting once more, she stretched out on the chair to reveal the full length of her leg and most of the swelling of her breasts as she leaned forward.

Vadim's eyes rested on that leg and he thought they were nicely toned, she must be running, or maybe dancing. The lithe way she moved spoke of dancing, most likely. A prostitute? Why?

"Tell me at least, do you find me attractive?" She smiled warmly and enticingly, as she slowly moved to stand up.

Asking that didn't make any sense. Like asking him what he thought of the décor. He looked at her and measured the body. Pretty. She was. Softer than Katya, but a Damascene rapier was softer than Katya. Still, it didn't make any sense. He glanced at the door, wondered when the guards would take him and bring him to the proper room. But maybe it wasn't a mistake. And she had asked a question, nonsensical as the chirping of a bird, but a question. "I can't answer that question."

"No, really." She walked around Vadim and leaned close, softly speaking into his ear. "I'm not joking, do you find me attractive?" Her hand rested on his arm as her body pressed gently close. The warmth of her skin heated his own through the thin fabric of the pyjamas, cold from endless hours in freezing conditions.

That was nice. The warmth. Really nice. Somebody who didn't shout at him. He liked that voice, yet another variation of English, throaty, cat-like, a nice, pleasant touch, and he soaked up her warmth. Oh. Again. Question. "I can't answer that question." Didn't want to tell her she was pretty, but not quite his taste. Women didn't like that.

She tried again, and with every trick under the sun and every bit of charm that she was capable of. Cajoling and smiling, asking and touching, but all she ever got in the end, was "I can't answer that question" until she got annoyed, her tone suddenly turning sharp and abrupt as she took a step back. At the same time the door opened and two guards entered the room, remaining close to the wall without interfering.

"Strip off, please." Impatiently waiting as she tapped her high heeled foot, her hands on her slender hips. "Come on hurry up, if you can't talk to me then I want to see how big you are. Or can't you talk because you have such a small one? Hm?"

Big one. Small one. Whatever. Vadim again began to strip, dropping the top first, with no emotional response. It was an order, so he did it. He was like an automaton now, with his mind only awake enough to stick to the sentence, the rules, and nothing else.

"Answer me."

Question. Response. "I can't answer that question." Stepping out of the pyjama bottoms. Obedience. He was still cold, exhausted, ready to collapse, but at the same time, these tests were the only thing that stood between him and real physical pain.

She laughed as she stood before him. "You aren't big at all, are you? In fact, you're the smallest I have ever seen and here I was, believing that such a big man would have a big cock. Far from it." She took a step closer, "tell me, or maybe you are a girl? It certainly is small enough for it."

"I can't answer that question." It was absurd in a way that some dreams were absurd, nothing got close, he glanced warily at the guards, then at the prostitute, then suddenly realised they didn't know he wasn't interested in women. Not even this kind, certainly not this kind. He gave her a smile at that thought, wondered how many of the others had responded to her and knew he was immune and they didn't know the first thing about his weaknesses.

She continued to insult him, in every way imaginable. His body, his manhood, questioning his very being, asking questions that only ever received the same answer, until she finally called angrily to the guards to take that faggot out of her sight, leaving Vadim just enough time to gather up the pyjamas before the blindfold once more descended over his eyes and he was marched out of the room.

Faggot. That was about right, but he'd been called that so often and laced with a far worse punishment, and he was too tired to care. Okay, they might know that now, and knew he wasn't British, but they were still trying to get a grip on him. That was good. The past started to blur, the other interrogations became one, moved away, became black and white and sepia. Hard to remember, when all he wanted to do was sleep. Maybe a few more hours. Half a day. He didn't care, it didn't matter, as long as he stuck to that sentence.

He was taken back into the white noise of the freezing room and made to put the clothing back on before he was forced to stand on his tiptoes, arms stretched out over his head and against the wall, supported by his fingertips. Pain. Tiredness. His mind washed out, merely holding on, muscles tight, as if shortened, and weak, beginning to cramp up again, tremors passing through his body that might be early warnings of cramps, or shuddering from the cold. He idly wondered whether Dr Williams had had any idea what he was sending him into. Vadim didn't know what was going on, whether they talked about him, whether they felt he was doing alright, and at this point didn't even care whether he'd made it or not. Nothing made much sense, nothing was important. Anaesthetised.

Barely half an hour later, he was once again taken out of the ice cold room and was guided through one of the many corridors, when suddenly his blindfold was taken off, still in the corridor itself. This made him tense, now expecting that beating that he'd been feeling hanging over his head, but no real fear, more a feeling of "let's get it over with", but he reached a room where the door was wide open, warmth and light coming out of it, as well as voices.

Strange. But he was past caring.

"Krasnorada." A man's voice at Vadim's side, and the next moment a person stepped into his vision. The Officer in Command of the training wing, in uniform and with a black armband. That meant something, something important, like a different set of rules.

"Krasnorada, are you feeling alright?" The OC asked, as one of the DS staff, who had been working closely with Vadim's patrol, came out of the room, carrying two cups of coffee.

"I can't answer that question." Looking at the OC, ignoring the DS, he'd kill for a cup of coffee, or tea, or whatever. Vadim wasn't expected to make any deals, sign anything, accept anything. Not even something hot to drink. Ignoring the bastard, and concentrating on the man in charge.

"Of course," the OC nodded as the DS flashed a brief grin. "Remember me, Krasnorada? I am OC Brighton, and this is DS Stafford." Pointing to their black armbands, with the way he spoke it was clear that Vadim was not the only one who could not snap out of it. "Remember, when we are wearing black armbands this means it is all over."

Vadim frowned, dug around in his mind, his memories, something about dogs and jungle and the dark shadow of a man, glimpses, and a first meeting somewhere … at the beginning of training. "I can't …" Repeated, just to make sure he didn't fail on the last leg. Looked into that man's face like a wild-eyed savage dragged from the forest. Krasnorada. They knew his name. They would. Nobody else had called him that. Maybe a different authority. Maybe it was true. But the risk of failure was too big. He glanced around, checking for the guards that would keep him under control, drag him out again. Wanting that coffee so very much.

"The 36 hours are done. Relax, Krasnorada, it's over." The DS was stepping aside while holding out the cup, drinking from his own as he kept Vadim under careful scrutiny. He wouldn't have been the first man who flipped at the end.

Vadim reached up for the cup, hand clenched again in mid-motion, nothing in his body seemed to know how to respond. Was he really allowed to drink? There was no cruelty, no pressure, but even the woman had changed faces quickly. Shaking his head, then reaching for the cup, with the dread that alone condemned him as surely as picking up a booby trapped dead comrade.

"It's over," the OC repeated once more as they made way into the warmth of the room that had nothing in common with any of the interrogation rooms. It was simply an office that Vadim even recognised as he'd been in there before.

"Over", repeated Vadim, not quite grasping it. No more stress positions. Black armbands. There weren't, like, dark blue to fuck him up, they were the black thing. They'd told him that that was different rules. The old rules stopped and evaporated. He was dumbstruck at the sudden freedom to speak, or think, and the only thing he wanted was to sleep. "What's … the ruling?" Bleary-eyed and dog-tired. "Sir?"

"You did it." The OC smiled and nodded once more. "Well done, Krasnorada. Good man."

Vadim nodded. Done. Over. The last test, selection done. "Thank… thank you, Sir." Still bewildered, he gave a smile, idiotic in its relief and openness as he dropped his guard, mostly because he didn't have the strength to keep it up.

The OC patted Vadim's shoulder and he could have patted a wall for all the reaction that Vadim showed. "Now get that coffee down your neck, then off to the cookhouse for some grub and get yourself checked over by the medic, just in case." He was about to leave the room.

"Yes, sir." Vadim wasn't sure what else was expected, but following that order seemed like a good idea. He took a sip from the coffee, which tasted good, and hot, hot was the main thing.

"And sleep, man. Sleep for as long as you like." With that the OC turned and walked through the door.

Vadim nodded. "Yes, sir." That sounded like the best order in the world. Disoriented, but at least free to walk and speak, even if he didn't make any sense anymore, he followed the orders in the exact sequence they had been given. Finished the coffee, which made him aware just how fucking cold he was, then managed to find the cookhouse, still in the flimsy pyjamas, emptied a plate of whatever it was - he never truly remembered what he ate that night, only that he grabbed some more food on the way. Then fell asleep waiting for the medic and hardly woke as he was prodded and checked, just blissfully sleeping, eventually waking up enough to walk, in whatever direction, and miraculously ending up in a bed. Even his bed. Whether the DS had somehow steered him that way, he didn't know. Didn't remember a thing after all this.

* * *

Three days later, in very different surroundings and a very different country, Vadim was asked to wait in an elegantly furnished ante room at the British embassy in Dubai. There was tea in a fine china set beside him on a small table, as well as an arrangement of biscuits, all laid out on silver plates and painted porcelain. The refinement of the place a stark contrast to the thousand places that his body ached. He'd slept on the plane, blissfully unaware, but mostly coherent. He still felt like a week or two of nothing but sleep and food.

Andy had made it, which was good, and there had been the traditional piss-up, even though Vadim wasn't SAS and would never be. Lacking the main things that were needed to be part of the Regiment, like, being born in Britain and being a member of the British Forces, but he was still invited to share in the beer frenzy and the bragging. Only he kept mostly silent and listened, but felt a strange pride when Andy told the story with the paras 'getting it'. Still, he had to leave, and did, didn't give a reason, just told Andy he had to "move on", and Andy called him "strange" again, and "mate", and Vadim walked out, hurting in an odd way that gave him hope.

He shook his head, stared at the porcelain. He did not have to wait long before the ambassador's aide returned to take him to the Baroness' office, where she was waiting, standing, hands clasped in front of her and appearing far taller than the petite lady truly was.

"Mr Krasnorada, I am glad to see you again." Perhaps she was, perhaps she wasn't. No way to tell from the carefully guarded but immensely polite face.

He bowed. "Ma'am. I'm glad to be here." Honest truth.

"I would hope so." She allowed herself a brief smile as she gestured elegantly to the leather settee, and he obeyed and sat down. Still mentally too exhausted to fear, as if all of that had been used up and drained away. She was no threat. She played fair. She could still destroy him, though.

Seating herself down onto the comfortable leather chair in front of the settee, she looked at Vadim and took her time doing so. Vadim looked at her, too, meeting that gaze, then turned to the side with a half-smile, trying to be polite and not stare.

"I am impressed with your performance." She finally said, "and will of course uphold my part of the deal." As if by magic, her aide appeared again, carrying a document folder which she took from the young man who duly disappeared. The large doors hardly made a sound as they closed behind him.

"I have … a deeper understanding now", Vadim murmured, which would have sounded more honest in Russian - English somehow made this sound empty, like the worst of his reports. "It was … insightful." Trying to find a way to explain what he felt when all the thoughts still hadn't properly settled.

She nodded. "I have here the documents required for your passport, which will be ready as soon as your photograph has been taken." The Baroness opened the folder on the low table between them, pulling out a wad of papers. "All you need to do is sign." She looked at him and a brief smile ghosted across her face as she laid a silver pen in front of Vadim. "And you shall be a British citizen."

Vadim looked at her, then at the pen. Just a signature away now, a life, and not that miserable stolen existence somewhere in limbo. A place where he could be part of something, anything. Like Andy was, or any of the other SAS guys. Like Dan. Changing sides. He took the pen, enjoying the weight, the fine craftsmanship and care that had gone into it. Ceremonial. His eyes flickered over the document, found the dotted line. Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada. In Latin letters, writing appearing somewhat unwieldy on his first name, but already smoother on his father's name. And fluid on the last name.

"Well," she said after a pause, looking up with that familiar half-smile, "this is settled, then." Standing up, she held out her hand. "Welcome to the United Kingdom, Mr Krasnorada."

He stood and took her hand, carefully, dazed, but more pleased and relieved than anything else. "Thank you, Ma'am."

"Your passport will be with you in a few hours, until then, you are my guest." She seemed suddenly aware that something more important than even the documents had not been touched yet, and she raised her head, looking straight into the pale eyes in front of her. "As for the other part of the bargain, we need another man in the Gulf. Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait. You name it, we need you."

Vadim nodded. "They say it's still interesting there."

A small pause during which she folded her hands once more. "Are you still willing to meet Dan McFadyen again?"

Willing? "Willing is not the word, Ma'am. More …" desperate. "Determined. I need to speak to him." And it made his heart beat faster. He'd wanted to tell Dan that he felt nothing anymore. But somehow, on the way, that old muscle in his chest had changed its opinion. Something, somewhere, even though he couldn't pinpoint it. Like something had healed, or been opened, or he simply could feel again. "And if I … can serve you and repay you some of your kindness, I'd be honoured." Again, the naked truth.

The Baroness inclined her head. "In that case, Mr Krasnorada, your flight will be soon." She bent down to gather the documents and to put them back into the folder, carrying it in her hands. "As soon as possible."

"Yes." He didn't have much, and had left nothing behind. He'd needed to be kitted out, but assumed there were ways to do hat. The Gulf was close, why even bother and return to the island when he could just travel on - soon. Maybe rest a little more, at least get rid of the aches and that numbness of his mind that spoke of the exhaustion, but after that, he'd be ready. "Maybe … a week, Ma'am, or ten days, and I'm ready."

She nodded, "I am afraid I have to leave you now but you shall not lack anything while you are my guest." Walking towards a smaller set of doors on the other side of the room, she stopped before she reached them. Turning back, as she had done, a few months earlier, "And don't forget, Mr Krasnorada, do make him see."

Vadim bowed again. "I will make him see." It would all turn out well in the end. He wouldn't disappoint Dan again, and, for once, fight side by side. Repaying him his trust and love, and all the good things, and maybe … maybe it would be as it had been. There was hope.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter XXIV: Collateral Damage
 
 
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.

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby accept and agree that this is a work of fiction and does not reflect in any way the opinions of the authors. The authors do not necessarily endorse the views expressed by the fictional characters.

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby indemnify the authors against all claims and actions whatsoever arising from reading the work of fiction.

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 21 June 2007